Cal Shakes, the family summer camp style theater in the foothills of Orinda below Mount Diablo, finally gave Shakespearean comic Danny Scheie the showcase he deserves with the ‘Comedy of Errors’. Aaron Posner directs this farce, a S’more of a Shakespeare comedy. It’s an old fashioned, vaudevillian style production and Posner lets his cast loose. He brings in the clowns. Many cast members each have a particular expertise in some form of the art. Even David Gockley of the San Francisco Opera put clown Bill Irwin in ‘Show Boat’ to open the summer with a bang. One feels shot out of a cannon. It's all about mistaken identities or misidentification involving two sets of twins. If one reads the play before going to see it, that would make things more clear.
Oddly enough for the characters it’s a comedy of terrors full of beatings, imprisonment, fines and infidelity. In the words of Bill Cosby when God calls him, 'Who is this really?'. Oddly enough, the twins in this story were raised in different cities but turned out the same, mirror images of each other.
I am still an ass
Accordingly the actors frolick about the entire theater with velocity if not agility and volume and a little shall we call it, interaction, with the audience. Scheie’s character even calls forth Scheie’s performance as Dogberry a few years ago in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ with the same declaration about being an ass. But a first class ass he is. Yet his fearful lines about fat women wanting to make him their husband if not their bitch ring true especially because of his leprechaunesque stature. He’s Dromio with a D not Romeo with a R. Scheie gets a monologue where he describes his wife as 'spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.'.
Speaking of which. The comedy, one of Shakespeare’s first efforts, was lifted from history and created to entertain lawyers at a special event. For some reason he made the lines rhyme a lot. Not just to be insipid and to mock the lawyers’ literacy I assume. There was an interest in probate and estate planning.
Alas. ‘The Comedy of Errors’ concerns two sets of identical twins who get separated at birth in a ship wreck. The adults continually cross paths later in life with the ensuing mayhem caused by misidentification. A particularly uproarious sequence starts the play off when a wife named Adriana, played royally by Nemuna Ceesay, sends for her hubby to come home for dinner. Unknown to her and her husband, her husband’s twin is nigh. Ceesay as the suspicious then outraged wife displays a commanding stage presence, far more decisive than the uppity teenage daughter she just played in ‘A Raisen in the Sun’.
Adriana’s bewildered servant Dromio, from the other set of lost twins, summons the wrong man. Scheie plays each of the twin Dromios and he’s on stage at the same time as both, literally switching hats or spinning into his other self or leaping from one spot to the other back and forth.
Adrian Danzig plays the master twins Antipholus like kids on a jungle gym. He’s buoyant with energy, bouncing and climbing about like a vaudeville dancer. There’s a running gag about how hapless if not astounded servant Dromio keeps taking a beating because of the misunderstandings. Dromio feels like a scapegoat and that his masters are mad. Yet soon they all find themselves running in circles literally as the misidentifications compound.
Tristan Cunningham gets her moment in a great tango sequence with her sister’s husband, one of the twins. The sexual tension comes from her mistaking the husband’s twin for the husband, who seems to suddenly confess his attraction.
Yet, the stage looks warm and colorful top to bottom as a wall made of pairs of shutters. Set designer Nina Ball created the shutters of aged wood, the overall look like that of an heirloom billboard-size quilt. Indeed it’s one big happy family, how could it not be with two sets of twins. One expects Goldie Hawn or Danny Scheie to pop them open and tell a gag right out of the swinging 1970s comedy show, ‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In’. Sound designer Andre Pluess shows comic inspiration with a great sound gag when the confused husband finally does try to go home for dinner only to be locked out.
The warm and vibrant colors come to life in the harlequin costumes designed by Beaver Bauer, giving them an array of clown looks from vaudeville barker to exotic magician. The styles range to Cirque du Soleilesque with a ruffly green creature. The latter would be a courtesan in a sort of poufy Bali outfit like a genie out of a bottle who performs a tidy burlesque. Brilliantly, the actor returns to the stage as a prim mother superior or abbess with a penchant for spanking her own hand. That’s Patty Gallagher.
Ron Campbell plays Egeon as well as Angelo and Pinch. Egeon is the wealthy father of one set of twins and gets to act out the divergent births as he tells the story of his life in an attempt to get out of prison, where he landed while searching for the missing sons. In the same scene he acts out how the servants Dromio are born to a poor mother and the twins destined to be the masters, born to his own wife.
Liam Vincent as the Duke and Balthazar looks dazzling in a wizard-like costume. He captures one’s attention with a little solo magic just before intermission, a surprise sequence that comes out of nowhere.
The Comedy of Errors runs through July 20. Tickets $20 - $72 with discounts available for seniors, students, groups, patrons under 30. Cal Shakes also sells twenty tickets for $20 each for every performance, first come, first served.
Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Way, Orinda, California 94563. (510) 548-9666.
Orinda BART station with free Cal Shakes Shuttle. Exit from 680 near Caldecott Tunnel, signs posted for Shakespeare Theater.
Free parking. Fully accessible for disabled. Golf cart shuttles from lot.
Picnics in the eucalyptus grove two hours before the play. Café offers hot and cold items plus beer and wine. Patrons may bring in alcohol.