Double the delight in Cal Shakes’s ‘The Comedy of Errors’

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To the modern theatergoer, an audience’s behavior in Elizabethan England might seem unruly, if not outright indecent. At the Globe Theatre in London, Shakespeare’s plays were performed for thousands of spectators who would flood the grounds and jostle into the pit, a standing-room yard adjacent to the stage where the groundlings, as they were known, were free to gamble, booze, brawl and be merry.

The rowdy merrymaking of Elizabethan crowds — so different from the civility of contemporary theater audiences — may seem better suited to Coachella than “Othello,” but the same can’t be said of California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes), where plays are staged at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. Cal Shakes, now celebrating its 40th season, reminds us that the theatrical experience can — and should — be one of revelry and delight with “The Comedy of Errors.”

“The Comedy of Errors,” Shakespeare’s earliest comedy and shortest work, draws heavily from classical sources, including Plautus’s “Menaechmi” and “Amphitryon.” In fact, of the whole Shakespearean canon, “The Comedy of Errors” is one of only two plays that adheres to Aristotle’s classical unities of action, place and time. As such, the comedy charts one primary plot in one place over the course of one day.

Despite this arguably restrictive narrative structure, director Aaron Posner’s take on “The Comedy of Errors” leaves us with a performance that is neither dull nor predictable. Instead, Posner toys with the plot’s constraints in any number of ingenious ways, as he does with the play’s casting.

The plot in question is a less-than-straightforward case of mistaken identity — or rather, identities, as two sets of identical twin brothers are involved. The first pair of twins, both named Antipholus (Adrian Danzig), are the sons of Egeon the Syracusan merchant (Ron Campbell) and his wife Emilia (Patty Gallagher). Egeon purchased the second set of twins, both named Dromio (Danny Scheie), to serve as his sons’ attendants.

We meet Egeon 25 years after he has been separated from his wife and one of his sons in a shipwreck. Egeon has traveled to Ephesus in search of the Antipholus from whom he was separated. This Antipholus, who has since settled in Ephesus with one of the Dromio brothers, is a successful merchant married to Adriana (Nemuna Ceesay). The other Antipholus and Dromio returned to Syracuse with Egeon after the shipwreck. Now, unbeknownst to Egeon, the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio have also arrived in Ephesus in search of the mother and brother Antipholus has never known.

Needless to say, chaos of uproarious proportions ensues. Antipholus and Dromio manage to threaten marriages, undertake trysts, broker arrests and upend sanity itself in a city where two sets of brothers weave in and out of each other’s paths.

Danny Scheie takes on both Dromios with tremendous, boisterous dynamism. The scenes in which Scheie plays both Dromios at once are especially enchanting to behold. Danzig, too, plays each Antipholus brother in such a way that each is instantly differentiated from the other. The strength of the Scheie-Danzig duo is elevated by masterful performances from the other cast members, almost all of whom also play two or more roles. This multiplicity is a nod to, if not an outright celebration of, the play’s farcical nature.

“The Comedy of Errors” proves the Cal Shakes experience to be an immersive and sidesplittingly gleeful one. It seems that, at Cal Shakes, all of the festivity — but none of the debauchery — of the Elizabethan stage has been preserved, with patrons arriving on-site hours before the show to wine and dine before taking their seats in the Bruns Amphitheater. At some point during the first act, the sun slid behind the stage, leaving nothing but the actors to shine, blanketed by the audience’s laughter beneath a starry night sky.

California Shakespeare Theater’s “The Comedy of Errors” is playing at the Bruns Amphitheater until July 20.

Contact Sarah Adler at [email protected].

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