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Shakespeare's Sitcom

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The Comedy of Errors might be the closest a William Shakespeare play ever gets to an episode of “Seinfeld.” One of the bard’s earliest, shortest and most farcical plays, its plot unfolds like a classic sitcom: Two sets of identical twins, separated at birth, spend one hilarious day repeatedly crossing paths. What ensue are misdirected attacks, seductions and arrests, as well as accusations of infidelity, theft, madness and possession by the devil.

“There’s a reason one of [Shakespeare’s] nicknames is the Bawdy Bard,” says director Ian Belknap, whose touring production of The Comedy of Errors stops by the St. Johnsbury Academy next week. The tour is a collaboration of two of the nation’s leading Tony Award-winning troupes, the Acting Company and the Guthrie Theater.

Belknap’s rendition of Errors is rife with slapstick and well-timed puns, as well as nods to Charlie Chaplin, such as the Little Tramp-inspired costumes — worn-out bowler hats and canes — for one set of twins. But he also stresses the story’s humanity. “Ultimately, [the twins] are looking for each other to find themselves,” says Belknap, and cites one of his favorite lines: “I to the world am like a drop of water/ That in the ocean seeks another drop.”

Belknap’s Acting Company has a reputation for breeding stars — Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone and Rainn Wilson are all alumni. Started 40 years ago by the first graduating class of Juilliard’s Drama Division, the troupe attracts young professional actors in the first stages of their careers. What distinguishes it from other acting conservatories? “We have a great affinity for language,” says Belknap.

The Acting Company teaches the public, too. In conjunction with each tour, it offers student matinees — such as Julius Caesar for area students next week — and workshops in acting, clowning and sword fighting. The company’s more intensive middle and high school programs “break down the huge wall of prejudice that most children have about Shakespeare.”

Belknap himself was no fan of the bard in high school: “I viscerally remember sitting there and thinking, This is so boring.” What was the problem? “Our teacher never told us they were plays,” he says.

Shakespeare isn’t for reading alone in silence, Belknap says he discovered after watching Richard Burton’s Hamlet. It’s for bringing to life on the stage.

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