Even geniuses write dud plays — “The Comedy of Errors” is Shakespeare’s — but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better production of it than the current one at the California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda. As the flimsy but funny story of mistaken identities, thanks to two sets of identical twins, “Errors” is a precursor to Shakespeare’s later — and better — play, “Twelfth Night,” which CalShakes staged wonderfully in the winter. Starting with last year’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” probably Wilde’s weakest play, CalShakes has been making it a habit to stage early, lesser works by otherwise excellent playwrights. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of clever couplets and great, extended jokes in “Errors” — including a long-form one about a rather massive and spherical love interest for Dromio — but the characters are largely sketches, forgotten as quickly as the laughter they brought on stage.
The key to the plot gets explained early on — and rather brilliantly — by the old man, Aegeon (Ron Campbell), a stranger to the land about to face a death sentence. Many years ago, he recalls, his wife (Patty Gallagher) gave birth to two twin boys, both aptly named Antipholus (Adrian Danzig). At the same time, Aegeon bought a pair of poor twin boys, both named Dromio (the scene-stealing Danny Scheie), to work as servants for his sons.
We witness the birth of the twins as two bowling-pin-shaped dolls emerging from beneath their squatting mothers (Patty Gallagher and Adrian Danzig in a dress, respectively): blue ones for the aristocrats and red ones for their servants. As the Antipholuses are born, Campbell appears with them, and as the Dromios are born, Scheie appears as well: they each pose next to the pin-like bodies representing the twins they play. This ensures we’ve got the game figured out tout de suite. Turning his walking staff into a mast, Aegeon recounts the tale of the shipwreck, which divided his family — half of which was tied to either end of the mast — decades ago: he survived with one son and one Dromio, while the other half of the twins was separated from him. For dramatic effect, one of the other actors throws a mug of water on Aegeon during his story, while another fans him to give the effect of a windy, stormy night.
The play involves much ado about nothing: the local Antipholus of Ephesus (Adrian Danzig), who was separated from both parents in the shipwreck, still has a servant named Dromio (Danny Scheie), a wife, Adriana (Nemuna Ceesay), for whom he plans to buy a gold chain, and a Courtesan (Patty Gallagher) he’s seeing on the side. The foreign Antipholus (Adrian Danzig) of Syracuse, who grew up in his father Aegeon’s care, has come to Ephesus in the company of his manservant, Dromio (Danny Scheie), in search of his long-lost brother. Along the way, each Dromio will mistake the wrong Antipholus for his master, and vice versa, Adriana will mistake Antipholus of Ephesus for her husband, and Antipholus of Syracuse will acquire the gold chain he neither ordered nor paid for, stirring up trouble along the way.
The trick here is that this very small, but strong, company brings out all the nuances of the language, never missing a joke, and puts it all together quite charmingly. They use physical humor to emphasize the verbal wit, not as a substitute for it. Both Antipholuses and Dromios wear identical costumes, so that only circumstances allow us to tell the difference. And when a scene calls for both twins to be present, each actor uses his hats to mark the place of his twin, twirling from left to right as he switches from one role to the next, the spotlight moving with him. Despite being the scorned wife, Adriana remains full of chutzpah, an extremely likable foil to the goofy men surrounding her. She’s usually followed by her sister, Luciana (Tristan Cunningham), who finds herself wooed through a beautifully choreographed — and hilarious — tango by the Antipholus not married to her sister, although she’s unaware that there are two of them. Only Gallagher stands out as a weak link, and that’s partly because she’s been given an embarrassing, over-the-top dance to do as the courtesan mistress, for no good reason.
Physical movement is often used to great effect throughout the play, with action getting paused into a tableau while one character steps forward to soliloquize to the audience about the confusing predicament he finds himself in. Occasionally, he might have trouble unfreezing his companions, after expositing to us.
There’s no furniture on stage, but it is full of a series of wedges, stairs, ramps and arches, creating a complex topography, which allows the actors to seem as if they’re traversing long distances even when they aren’t. The second half involves a hilarious chase sequence as they run after each other through one arch, down one set of stairs, up another and so forth. The action isn’t confined to the stage either, with characters entering from all corners of the theater, and even interacting with audience members: Adriana, at one point, fell into the lap of former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau, who was just as charmed by the spontaneity as the rest of us were.
Given how rich the production is otherwise, with a pared-down cast and stage, it’s a shame that director Aaron Posner felt the need to add in unnecessary modern flourishes. The three “for god’s sake”s that Dromio exclaims in Shakespeare’s text get expanded to dozens on-stage — an obvious and unnecessary addition. Similarly, when Aegeon begins his mission to gather the funds required to be spared the death penalty, he babbles on about launching a Kickstarter. Why adulterate a play that would have been fabulous if the text had been left intact?
“The Comedy of Errors” may lack the depth of Shakespeare’s later plays, but if you’re going to see it on stage, this production is the one to see. It’s a laugh-a-minute, especially in the first half, entirely thanks to a great cast delivering the clever dialogue Shakespeare put in print.
CalShakes offers $20 off regular single ticket prices for patrons aged 30 and under. Half price rush tickets are also available for students at the box office, in person, 30 minutes prior to each performance, if seating is available. The company also offers 20 tickets for $20 to each performance, available the day of between noon and 2PM PST, if you call the box office. For more information about discount pricing at CalShakes, check their website here.