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An innovative, circus-themed Shakespeare collaboration at Raleigh Little Theatre

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In a sense it's not such a stretch to place Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors in the setting of a circus.

Antipholus of Syracuse is a central character who's repeatedly mistaken for his long-lost identical twin during his sojourn in the foreign city of Ephesus. At the outset, he knows (or at least, he's heard) that the place is full of cozenage—tricks—and that its inhabitants include "nimble jugglers that deceive the eye, dark-working sorcerers ... disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks, and many such-like liberties of sin."

From the sound of things, we're already well within the contested cultural space of a cirque. Add some clowns, a fire-eater and a contortionist or two (the "soul-killing witches that deform the body"), and you've got yourself a big top.

As any child of 10 will tell you, the rules are different at the circus. That's why we go in the first place. It's a form of travel, by which we take a trip outside our mundane identities. The cirque exists in large part because, deep down, we want to draw near foreign folks and folkways (even if, more often, we encounter misrepresentations of them instead). In a sense, our identities are not complete until we meet with other ways of being that are alien to our own.

That thought is rendered literally in this Shakespearean comedy, as Antipholus (an urbane Brian Fisher) seeks his own twin, and the aged Aegeon (a leonine Kurt Benrud) places his life in peril while searching for the son he lost after a shipwreck long ago. Since Shakespeare makes it evident early on, it's no spoiler to note the focus of their quests resides here, in the character Antipholus of Ephesus (Seth Blum).

This production itself marks something of a meeting between three different cultures. Bare Theatre's G. Todd Buker directs this collaboration with Raleigh Little Theatre and upstart Cirque de Vol Studios, a group devoted to training and exhibiting the techniques of European cirque. On the basis of the results achieved here, we anticipate further rewarding experiments in fusing these disparate forms of embodied performance.

In crowd and carnival scenes, performers and extras provided welcome distraction (and occasional upstaging) when actors occasionally slid into iambic trance, forsaking the subtext of Shakespeare's script. Actors' sometimes awkward attempts at cirque techniques such as aerial silks proved that, lacking adequate training, it's best to leave such things to the professionals.

Rebecca Blum was a standout in the role of the wronged, and wronging, wife, Adriana, and Chuck Keith and Matt Gore ably acquitted themselves as the hapless Dromio twins, identical-twin servants to the two men named Antipholus. In supporting roles, Stephen Wall was memorable as the foppish merchant Angelo and Jane Underhill made for a peppery abbess Aemilia. Though Katie Anderson's Courtezan was underacted and Thomas Porter never fully inhabited the role of the duke—and ringmaster—of these proceedings on opening night, Jeff Buckner was amusing as a sad-sack Balthazar and a quack named Dr. Pinch.

We were taken with the juggling and fire work of Adam Dipert, and, at certain moments, Carlie Huberman's contortions and silk work added to the architecture of the set. The vivid costumes by Anderson and Ashley Lorenz took us further into a glittering world of exaggeration and error, and Jesse Daystar's pyrotechnics punctuated scenes.

It's telling that one belief is central to both quests in Shakespeare's text: the thought that even decades of separation in foreign lands will not have rendered brother unrecognizable to brother, or father to son. This plays out as the estranged identical twins (and their identical servants) walk the byways of the town. Repeatedly, they're mistaken for one another by merchants, lovers, family members and servants. Again, as at the circus, we're sometimes surprised more by the similarities we share with the alien than by our differences.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Midway follies."

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