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SOU's 'Comedy of Errors' plays up local contrasts

There’s nothing like a bang-bang start. As “The Comedy of Errors” opens, the Duchess of Ephesus (Lakia Solomon) tells Egeon (Jon Cates), a merchant from Syracuse, that it’s death for anybody from Syracuse to be found in Ephesus. So who shows up in Ephesus next but Antipholus of guess where (if you said Syracuse you’ve probably seen it before).

Oh, those dang Ephesians!

Ephesus was known to the Elizabethans from St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, and the city, an important one in Asia Minor, was thought by Christians of the day to be a hotbed of wizards, sorcerers, witches, astrologers, rampant sex and assorted weirdness. In other words, a lot like Ashland.

Or at least that’s how Southern Oregon University’s good-natured new version of Shakespeare’s early comedy, adapted and directed by SOU’s David McCandless, would have it. In this buoyant production, which opened Friday night at the Collier Center in Medford, Ashland plays wacky, hedonistic Ephesus to Medford’s sober, conservative Syracuse.

The thing with directors injecting contemporary conceits into Shakespeare plays is that it’s fun if it works, but not so much if the device calls attention to itself at the expense of the play. The Ashland-Medford thing is a natural. The boys from Syracuse are fish out of water in wicked Ephesus.

There’s a lot of ribbing of Ashland/Ephesus. Look, there’s the Wapiti Club and the Black Centaur. Aging hippies smoking joints, ladies of the night, Honduran double cappuccinos. Hungry? Aw, go to Syracuse and eat at Hometown Buffet.

In case it’s been a while, a quick refresher: Two sets of twins were separated in a shipwreck, the Antipholi and the Dromios. The father, Egeon, is on a world cruise in search of his sons. Meanwhile, the Antipholus and Dromio and Syracuse turn up in Ephesus not knowing it’s now the home of their twins of the same names, who wound up there years earlier.

This sets up a series of mistaken identities, a lot of confusion over money and a certain piece of jewelry and repeated accusations of madness and demonic possession, not to mention a whole lot of slapstick comedy, puns and wordplay.

In another twist, Dromio of Syracuse, the servant of Antipholus of Syracuse (Galen A. Molk), and Dromio of Ephesus, servant to Antipholus of Ephesus (Kyle Sanderson), have become sassy kid sisters (played by Meg Chambers and Samantha Miller). Miller and Chambers endow the servants with spunk and get some of the production’s best laughs.

The direction is fast-paced without descending into total slapstick. After all, the ending doesn’t stop with the usual weddings; it reunites an entire family. McCandless and his students have foregrounded such themes as the meaning of identity, the pain of loss and the enduring nature of family bonds.

Did we mention the whole thing has become a semi-musical, with live music performed by The Fret Drifters (Andy Casad and Nick Garrett-Powell on guitars and Jim Sitter on cajon). There’s not a lot of dance, but what there is is rousing. There is also, although the characters carry cell phones, a terrific sword fight.

The beating of servants, a comic tradition that the Elizabethans seemed to love as much as the audiences of the Commedia dell’arte, is notable by a general absence.

Chandler Parrott-Thomas’s long-suffering Adriana, who thinks she’s seeing her husband, Antiphons of Ephesus, losing his mind, is the only character who keeps her wits amid the chaos. Truett Felt is her sister, Luciana, Connor Chaney is Angelo the goldsmith, and Aleah Zimmer is the funny priestess Emilia.

—Reach Medford freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Chandler Parrott-Thomas, left, and Truett Felt play Luciana and Adriana in Southern Oregon University's 'Comedy of Errors.' Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta