There’s something about “The Comedy of Errors’ ” “generic Shakespeare” nature that gives directors leave to treat it as a near-blank page — one on which virtually any stylistic or conceptual fillip can be imposed. Under almost every circumstance, the play bounces back, frivolous yet hardy as a Nerf ball. It’s become a signature piece for idiosyncratic Bay Area director Danny Scheie, who first staged his ingenious vest-pocket version as a college thesis project in 1985, then scored a hit at Shakespeare Santa Cruz three years later, reprising the production in the first annum of his brief SSC artistic directorship in ’93.
Substantially reworked each time, the show’s latest incarnation is packing the high-polish but determinedly small-scale Aurora Theater Co.’s minuscule Berkeley City Club space and might well run all year if not for their rep-sked commitments. (Scheie opens yet another “Comedy” for Seattle Shakespeare Fest on April 13.) An unalloyed delight, overflowing with comic inspiration, this rambunctious yet flawless little staging cries for a commercial transfer.
Always fascinated by the mistaken-identity and gender-blur elements that drive many of the Bard’s comedies, Scheie heightens those aspects here by using just seven actors to play all 16 roles. (Onstage pianist Scrumbly Koldwyn chips in with a few line readings as well.)
Plot’s patent contrivance is underlined by their frequent crossdressing, and pushed to breaking point when some thesps eventually have to switch characters within a single scene.
Thus well-born Antipholuses (Susannah Schulmann, whose Southern-gent Ephesean edition is particularly inspired) and their twin slaveys Dromio (a maniacally inventive Brad DePlanche) are double-cast, while other performers take as many as five roles apiece. Sole exceptions are Syracusean businessman Antipholus’ wife Adriana (Susan Marie Brecht, wringing infinite variations on spousal exasperation) and her sister Luciana (an airheaded-flapper Johanna Falls). Latter is flattered if nonplused when her supposed in-law, A. of Epheseus, becomes a smitten suitor, while politely evading his “wife.”
Setting the piece in a vague early-20th century NYC, Scheie lifts ideas from the prior century’s stage melodramas, vaudeville, even the Three Stooges and “Gone With the Wind.” A red curtain at one end of the small, unelevated playspace is sole “set”; gags include the aristocratic twins’ death-sentenced father Solinus (Joan Mankin) illustrating his tragic family separation 33 years ago via classroom transparency-projector.
But humor is mostly dependent on the terrific cast’s game slapstick, broad albeit precise physical characterizations, and spot-on timing.
Scheie’s anything-goes approach might lead one to expect a gimmicky skim across the text. Yet his great strength as a Shakespearean director is the cogent emphasis placed on every line, rendering this “Comedy” a constant source of laughs big and small, rather than one hinged on flashy setpieces.
Ensemble is rounded out by nimble contribs from Adam Gavzer (lending his parts a giddy multinationality) and Brian Yates Sharber (especially outrageous as an indignant lady of the evening). At barely over two hours, including intermission, this “Comedy” is one of the fastest-paced in memory, as well as one entirely error-free.