The Comedy of Errors
Summer is a fine time for circuses and for Shakespeare, so it's a good thing there's a show where you can get both.
Cal Shakes' giddy new production of "The Comedy of Errors" plays at the Bruns Ampitheater throughout July. One of Shakespeare's earliest comedies and also his shortest and most frivolous, "Errors" chronicles the hapless adventures of two sets of identical twins. Each goes along his merry way, routinely mistaken for the other but ignorant of the problem. It was an old plot even in Shakespeare's day, but after 2,000 years it remains funny and compelling. That's good value.
This "Errors" is as much a sideshow as staged theater. The numerous pratfalls and slapstick antics are to be expected, but director Aaron Posner empties the cart by throwing mime, dance, tumbling, vaudeville, burlesque, situation comedy and sleight-of-hand into the affair, too. We assume the sword-swallower and fire-eater were bumped only for the sake of time, and possibly insurance-related prohibitions. There's juggling and acrobatics and when Antipholus (we forget which one, but does it honestly matter?) puts the moves on Luciana we even get a steamy mock-tango session.
In most shows all this extra business would seem overly busy and undermine the script, but flighty, madcap "Errors" invites a sense of play more than any other Shakespeare piece. The carnival atmosphere even reminds us that the play -- all the plays -- were considered "low" entertainment in their day, only one step removed from actual carnival shows, one often accompanying the other. "Errors" is exactly the kind of play that thrives when injected with Cal Shakes' usual big, boundary-pushing sense of creative excess.
Admittedly, the kitchen sink routine doesn't always hold water: The program's habit of throwing obnoxious one-liners into the text gets old about five minutes before the first act even begins. But who ever said you could win them all, or even had to?
Seven actors play over a dozen roles. One Antipholus (Chicago-area actor/clown/acrobat Adrian Danzig plays both characters) is a credulous, somewhat wide-eyed traveler, the other a self-satisfied local big shot. The two Dromios (both played by Cal Shakes MVP Danny Scheie, who, as far as we're concerned, needs to be put on a stamp sometime soon) are funhouse mirrors of their respective masters, one a slightly harebrained innocent and the other an assured wise guy with James Cagney dialect.
Nemuna Ceesay (seen last month at the Bruns in "A Raisin in the Sun") plays Antipholus' hawk-eyed, commanding wife Adriana, while Tristan Cunningham (charming in last season's "Winter's Tale") fills in as Adriana's sister, Luciana. They're a great two-woman comedy team, one hot while the other is cool, one pliant whenever the other is forceful.
For all its headiness, some surprisingly serious business frames "Errors." The story's roots lie in a family broken apart by a freak accident, and the action takes place against the looming threat of death for one marginal but important character. A certain meditation on the fickleness of fate -- why does chance favor one person over another, etc. -- girds the play as well. Strictly speaking, the antics onstage do distract from this context, rewarding one element of the story at the expense of the other.
But frankly, there are other plays for that sort of thing. Posner's show exploits "The Comedy of Errors'" best strengths and sends everyone out laughing. It's a truly feel-good experience, and the company's most pleasing comic production in years, a big, grinning, toe-tapping slice of theater that appeals to all but the most sour of pusses.
The show is good for: Audiences who already know whether they have any identical twins.
The show is not good for: Audiences whose identical twins might show and steal their seats.
"The Comedy of Errors" runs through July 20 at the Bruns Memorial Ampitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, in Orinda. For tickets and information, call 510-548-9666 or visit calshakes.org