Putting the Flying Karamazov Brothers in Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors" is, in effect, doing a Spike Jones arrangement of the play.
There is, of course, textual justification for casting jugglers, mimes and just about everything but The Kitchen Sink (wouldn't that be a good name for a new vaudeville troupe?). Early in the play, Shakespeare says the town where it takes place is full of "nimble jugglers that deceive the eye." And while I am as ready as the next man to get on my high horse about travesties of Shakespeare, this is not the occasion.
Though some of the verse in this early play has a recognizably Shakespearean melancholy, for the most part "Comedy" shows its author striving to entertain the Elizabethan equivalent of The Tired Businessman.
The plot is low farce and there are plenty of those vulgar puns that must have been real thighslappers 400 years ago and are inexplicable now. In this context the playful vulgarity of the Karamazovs fits right in. If one is to complain, it may be that too often they settle for laughs that are too easy.
There are a lot of clever ideas. Having one of the actors read a book on "How To Tell A Joke" while he delivers one of those bawdy puns lets us laugh even if we don't understand. It's also fun to watch juggling fit the rhythms of the verse.
Sophie Hayden stands out for her ability to project a character in the midst of her accomplished acrobatics. In most other cases the acrobatics take precedence. Still, this "Comedy" makes breezy, delightful summer entertainment.
It takes no scholarship, merely a clear eye, to discern that there are more errors than comedy in Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors."
Possibly a youthful indiscretion (although the dating of the play is one of its more disputed aspects), Shakespeare's adaptation of a farce by the Roman playwright ("Comedy Tonight") Plautus, is, as the poet John Masefield once notoriously observed, "the only Shakespearean play without a deep philosophical idea."
You want philosophy? Look in the Yellow Pages, but do not go to the Vivian Beaumont, where Lincoln Center Theater is presenting "The Comedy of Errors" in an all-juggling (yes, that's right, juggling) version that originated at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, that jugglin' town.
"The Comedy of Errors" can be riotously funny in its own farcical right - Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company has had virtually a tradition of success with it - but it usually isn't.
The story of two identical twins, separated at birth, and provided with two identically separated identical twins as servants (this latter elaboration was Shakespeare's personal gilding of Plautus's original lily) needs care; and even then the plot, while crystalline in outline, is murky in details.
Perhaps it is the play's general, if genial, vaudeville-style inconsequentiality and breeziness that has led to it being pretty much fair game for adapters and improvers.
In 1938, Rodgers & Hart, together with George Abbott, when he was little more than a middle-aged stripling, made us a cheerful musical, "The Boys from Syracuse," and much more recently, on a far sadder note, the play was used for yet another Broadway musical, the disastrous "Oh, Brother!"
So why not jugglers? Why not the self-styled New Vaudeville? Why not the Flying Karamazov Brothers and their juggling circus? Why not Avner the Eccentric? Why not Ethyl ("High Octane") Eichelberger?
Well, why not? But there again, why? And why at Lincoln Center? Well, so far as that is concerned, why not?
As for the Karamazovs, they first flew at the play in 1983, and after their crack-up at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale," conceivably thought that this might be a good wheeze to get their ambitions once more airborne.
While charming, laid-back individuals, the Karamazovs are rotten actors, which no amount of their heavily underlined acknowledgment of the jokey fact can excuse. Not even in "The Comedy of Errors."
The director, Robert Woodruff, who was also involved in that unhappy "Soldier's Tale," has retained a remarkable amount of Shakespeare's comparatively brief text, and staged the whole thing at the frantic pace of a belly-laugh tripping on a whoopee cushion to the sound of a kazoo.
The topical additions - the predictable gags about Irangate and the Hasty Hart - are not particularly painful, Eichelberger ad libs with spirit, but generally there is an unsubtlety to the humor that is more knowing and more pretentious than vaudeville or burlesque (the intended stylistic sources) would have countenanced.
For example, when one of the Dromios (don't ask even them, which) has a pseudo demise and segues into Mercutio's death scene from "Romeo" - we have horrified shouts of: "Wrong play!"
The joke is not particularly funny in the first place, and even less funny when it has to be signaled for some Yuppie-recognition quotient, in the second. Highbrow vaudeville is a contradiction in turns.
The best performances come not from the Karamazovs (who juggle surprisingly little, and, disappointingly, very conventionally, here being at their happiest when playing instruments), but from the acid-tongued Eichelberger as a Courtesan who knows her way round any camp; Sophie Hayden, who not only makes a delightful Adriana (Shakespeare's spirited heroine) but can twirl a mean baton; and the lovely Avner the Eccentric.
Avner's opening shtick with a cigarette pack is a treasure, markedly funnier, and, in its desultory way, more Shakespearean than anything that follows.
Still let me be fair to this "Comedy of Errors": it does have a manic vitality, and its four-and-a-half-ring circus approach certainly provides its own fast and furious fun.
The jazzy music directed by Douglas Wieselman (who also composed some of it with Thaddeus Spae) is a consistent pleasure, some of the comic routines are irresistible, and with its sets by David Gropman and inventive costumes by Susan Hilferty, the whole show has a cheering tatterdamalion look to it.
I suppose the laudable intention was to provide Shakespeare for people who do not like Shakespeare. And it may work. But, be warned, I doubt whether it can provide Shakespeare for people who do not like juggling.
For myself - and, let me signal, I am quoting from a wrong play - I would have preferred more matter and less art, or more juggling and less Shakespeare. Or, if you like, no Shakespeare - or Plautus, or even Mickey Mouse - at all.
At one point in ''The Comedy of Errors,'' as free-interpreted by the Flying Karamazov Brothers, William Shakespeare walks on stage and balances an electric guitar on his bearded chin. Shakespeare is impersonated by Timothy Daniel Furst, the silent Karamazov. While Mr. Furst inhabits the play with a look of bewilderment, his four fellow freres throw a proverbial custard pie in his face. ''The Comedy of Errors,'' which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, plays fast, loose and lunatic with the original. The approach is totally lacking in reverence but is not deficient in humor.
These five juggling clowns (unrelated except in their zaniness and their hirsute appearance) will do almost anything for a laugh. Nothing is too sacred or profane to be ridiculed, beginning with Shakespeare and extending to themselves as Shakespearean actors. Occasionally, the show misfires, but, as juggling virtuosos, the Karamazovs have learned to be quick on the recovery. If they drop one club, they spin two others into the air. To rephrase the subtitle of ''Twelfth Night,'' this version of ''The Comedy of Errors'' could be called ''What They Will.''
The four talking Karamazovs play the twins, masters and servants. While one Antipholus (Paul Magid) resembles the other (Howard Jay Patterson), the Dromios are instantly distinguishable. Sam Williams is cherubic while Randy Nelson is tall and slim. One would have to be a fool to confuse them - and that fact should say something about the other characters on stage.
Almost all of them derive from - and occasionally diverge from - the original script. There are a few additions, besides the character of Shakespeare. For example, a major role is that of the Janitor, played by the ineffable Avner Eisenberg. This deadpan honorary Karamazov begins the evening by littering, sweeping and littering the stage. As he merrily warms up the audience, he sets the show in a circus context. Soon, so much is happening that if you look in the wrong direction, you may miss a choice flight of fancy, such as Mr. Eisenberg's droll walk on a low wire (the ''wire'' is a slack clothesline).
Four years ago, when he was artistic director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago, Gregory Mosher had the ingenuity to match the Karamazovs with Shakespeare's most frivolous comedy. Now, as artistic director of the Lincoln Center Theater, he has had the good comic sense to let New Yorkers share the joke.
Sets, lights and breakaway costumes are by the same creative hands. But there have been a few minor changes on the road to the Beaumont. The non-Bardian banter has been updated to include references to Oliver L. North, Gary Hart and other names in the news. Sophie Schwab, still delightful as Adriana (wife to Antipholus), has changed her stage name to Sophie Hayden, and there is one notable newcomer to the cast. Ethyl Eichelberger, for years a downtown star, has gone legitimate, in a manner of speaking.
Mr. Eichelberger is both the courtesan and the abbess - an easy double play for this cross-dressed clown, who has a one-man version of ''King Lear'' in his own repertory. In character, he does his signature cartwheel. All around him, other actors are turning figurative (and sometimes real) cartwheels, circumnavigating and, whenever possible, circumventing Shakespeare.
Ms. Hayden, Gina Leishman (as her sister) and a few others have a genuine affinity for the Shakespearean language. On the other hand - as I said in my original review from Chicago - as classical actors, the Karamazovs are not about to challenge the Royal Shakespeare Company. But can Ian McKellen juggle?
The Karamazovs use juggling as a comic instrument and for punctuation. In this production, the juggling is infectious, or, if you will, catching. Everyone does it; the stage swarms with true and mock Karamazovs, as comedy veers from pratfalls to visual and verbal puns. When in doubt (or in trouble), the actors make the comedy physical. Just as the Karamazovs use tenpins to make a point, Ms. Hayden twirls her baton, which could be regarded as singular form of juggling. For example, when she is angry, she swings her baton as if it were a machete.
On stage are stilt-walkers, belly dancers and fire-eaters. There is an aerialist (Wendy Parkman) with striking equipoise, and there is also a rubber chicken. Behind the scenes, a circus-style band sounds like a chorus of calliopes. There are enough variety acts for a bill of old and new vaudeville. The director, as he was in Chicago, is Robert Woodruff. While crediting him for his Keystone Kop traffic management, one must wonder if part of his duty was not to duck and run for cover.
At one point during a preview, Ms. Hayden accidently sprayed a theatergoer with seltzer - and offered an apology. No such apology is owed Shakespeare. He should be able to handle himself (duck and run for cover). He might even have enjoyed the Elizabethan spontaneity. If you put aside preconceptions, you should laugh at this frolicsome clown show, and, as Mr. Eichelberger reminds us during a stroll through the audience, if you want to know the real plot of the play, you can look up ''The Boys from Syracuse.''