July 1, 2014 § Leave a Comment
Director/Playwright Aaron Posner is having his moment, and watching his wonderfully inventive production of Comedy of Errors at Cal Shakes it is easy to see why. Posner brings the same kind of surprise and delight to Errors that infuses his sold-out production of The Tempest (incorporating magic designed by Teller – of Penn & Teller fame) now playing at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard.
His production of Errors, featuring local favorite Danny Scheie and the brilliant Adrian Danzig of Chicago’s 500 Clown, has a virtuosic theatricality that is both clever and very entertaining.
Mistaken Identity, Loss, and Longing
Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, but it has the confident polish of the late romances (Winter’s Tale, Tempest and Cymbeline) and some surprising structural similarities. Based on the Roman playwright Plautus’ Twin Manaechmi, it is superficially a farce of mistaken identity when twins separated at birth, along with their also-separated-twin servants, coincidentally find themselves in the same place at the same time and are constantly confused with each other. Many contemporary productions have found some deeper resonances in the intensity of loss and longing expressed by the members of the play’s shattered family- which also includes a lost mother and father – although this is not Posner’s way.
His production, instead, finds it central energy in the sheer theatricality of a single actor playing both twins. Posner pushed this concept much further than is usual, however, by divorcing it from any attempt at realistic illusion and inviting us into the game.
Shakespeare’s play is carefully structured so that no twin appears onstage with his brother until the final scene – where the illusion is often accomplished with stand-ins. (This was the approach taken in last summer’s production at the Marin Shakespeare Festival, for example.) There is, however, a very clever scene early in the play when the twin servants (the Dromios) have a scene together, one visible on the outside of a door and the other hidden behind it. Posner’s inventiveness is on high display in this moment, because his “door” is an entirely transparent creation of mime and hilarious sound effects. Actor Danny Scheie jumps back and forth transforming from one twin into the other with little more than the adjustment of his hat and attitude.
Both Scheie and Danzig (as the Antipholus twins) deliver bravura performances of rapid fire changes, reaching their peak in the touching denouement when they play both reunited twins simultaneously. (No spoiler alert necessary – you have to SEE it to appreciate what they do!)
As the evening progresses we see other actors in the small ensemble of seven also making onstage transformations from one character into another in their multiple roles. Ron Campbell and Liam Vincent make the most of this when they find themselves trapped onstage as the merchants Angelo and Balthasar unable to change into the approaching Egeon and the Duke – which they are also playing. The priceless looks of blind panic on their faces were worth the price of admission alone, and the relief they felt when costumes conveniently appeared from the wings was palpable. The rubbery Patty Gallagher found an equally funny solution to her problem when one of her characters, the Courtesan, is sent to fetch another, the Abbess, as she just gamely stalled carrying out the instruction.
Is There an Award for Funniest Sound Design?
Beaver Bauer’s eclectic costumes were at once luxurious and comedic, and handily facilitated the extensive doubling of the supporting cast. Nina Ball’s brightly colored set was serviceable, but undistinguished. Lighting Designer David Cuthbert contributed much more, especially to defining the moments of suspended time, which made a special kind of sense of the soliloquies. The standout design of the evening, however, was Andre Pluess’ brilliant sound design – a work of comic genius.
The loss of this highly theatrical approach is that it rendered the two female leads, Nemuna Ceesay as Adriana and Tristan Cunningham as Luciana, relatively uninteresting. Because they were not changing characters, and were essentially one-dimensional personalities, they were left without much to do and their skills unexploited. The text was also not treated with any particular reverence, with some of the interpolated gags getting a bit cheap. (“My wife is shrewish.” “Funny, she doesn’t look shrewish.”)
All told, however, the big laughs and charming performances far outweigh any deficits. There is hardly a slow moment in the evening to catch one’s breath. This is an easy production to love. CalShakes’ Artistic Director, Jonathan Moscone, has been able to attract some of the top talent in the nation to the Bay Area, and we can only be thrilled that he talked Aaron Posner into returning!