Double good, double fun in Cal Shakes’ Comedy

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Patty Gallagher (left) is the Courtesan, Adrian Danzig (center) is Antipholus and Danny Scheie is Dromio in the California Shakespeare Theater production of The Comedy of Errors. Below: Scheie steals the show as both Dromio twins. Photos by Kevin Berne

A visiting stranger makes a keen observation: “Your town is troubled with unruly boys.” The trouble is, he ends up being one of the unruly boys, and that’s the fun of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, a masterfully chaotic comedy now at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater.

As farces go, this Comedy requires us to believe that two sets of not-so-bright twins with the same names – the upper-class set is called Antipholus, the slave set is called Dromio – cause confusion, consternation and furious frustration when roaming the streets of Ephesus of the same day. Once over that hump (and Shakespeare makes it pretty easy), the farce clicks along like a finely tuned laugh machine until brothers are reunited, a father’s search is fulfilled and a courtesan gets her diamond ring back.

Director Aaron Posner strikes the right tone from the start as he has his troupe of seven actors deliver the pre-show speech about de-noising electronic devices and the traditional all-praise of Peet’s Coffee and Tea. There’s a lively informality to the proceedings that allows his loosey-goosey production to deliver an abundance of Shakespeare’s laughs and plenty devised by director and actors.

There’s a cartoonish feel to the proceedings, from the whimsical sound effects (by Andre Pluess) to the graceful arches and busy wooden-plank-heavy platforms of Nina Ball’s brightly colored set. But the zaniness is never so broad it becomes frayed and unfunny, and that’s thanks to a septet of actors that essays multiple roles with gusto.

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This is especially true in the case of Adrian Danzig playing both Antipholus twins and Danny Scheie as the Dromio twins. Many believe that Shakespeare originally intended that one actor play each set of twins, which makes for a double tour de force for a set of fine comic actors.

Danzig and Scheie are more than up to the challenge, with Danzig playing more of the straight role (still with cartwheels and a fantastic seduction of Tristan Cunningham as Luciana), making Antipholus of Ephesus kind of a thug and Anitpholus of Syracuse sweeter and more prone to naiveté. Scheie, a Cal Shakes favorite for good reason, all but steals the show as the Dromios. His nimble, high-energy performance gives us an abrasive Dromio of Ephesus and a dimwitted Dromio of Syracuse. With a Wonder Woman spin and a tilt of his hat, Scheie spends one scene being both twins, one on either side of a closed gate, and it’s so exciting you’d like to stop the show and ask him to do it again – stunt comedy at its finest.

Scheie might be described as a ham if he weren’t so incisive in his creation of distinct characters, mining the dialogue for each zinger and laugh. Dromio of Syracuse’s reaction to Nell, the large, greasy cook provides one of the evening’s best and most prolonged laughs, just as Dromio’s frequent cri de coeur, “Oh, for God’s sake!” just gets funnier each time.

There would be plenty to love about this Comedy with just Danzig and Scheie doing their twin thing, but the support they get from their fellow actors makes this zippy evening (not even two hours) all the more enjoyable. Ron Campbell and Liam Vincent play multiple roles (Vincent’s deadpan way with a punch line is priceless), and at one point near the end of the show, they realize the plot requires them to assume characters seen previously with no time or opportunity to change costumes. So clothing racks appear miraculously from backstage and the actors change in full view (and much to the delight) of the audience.

Patty Gallagher does a marvelous striptease without taking of any clothing as the Courtesan (all to a recording of her lines) and then moments later is in full nun regalia as an Abbess sporting a giant, pain-inflicting ruler.

In addition to her tantalizing tango with Danzig (choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch), Cunningham charms as Luciana, a little sister who doesn’t know what to do when her older sister’s husband (or so she thinks) falls madly and instantly in love with her. And then there’s Nemuna Ceesay, fresh from her wonderful turn in Cal Shakes’ A Raisin in the Sun, as Adriana, a wife who is done with her husband’s shenanigans. I’ll always remember Ceesay’s performance fondly, not simply because she’s such a force on stage, but because in one of her forays into the audience on opening night, she interacted with male members of the audience and planted a big ol’ lipsticky kiss on my lips. As if the balmy June night wasn’t already warm enough, here’s a good example, kids, of how live theater can do things movies and TV never, ever could.

There’s so much good will and sheer enjoyment built up in this Comedy that by the ending, when the two sets of twins are required to share the stage at the same time, the audience quite happily plays along as Danzig and Scheie jump back and forth from twin to twin, untangling all the farcical knots and supplying a little jolt of familial warmth, supplying a nice little cherry on top of this expertly crafted Comedy.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Danny Scheie about playing a set of twins for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

California Shakespeare Theater’s The Comedy of Errors continues through July 20 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

Scheie shines in SJ Rep’s poignant Next Fall

Danny Scheie (left) is Adam and Adam Shonkwiler is Luke in San Jose Repertory Theatre’s production of Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts. Below: James Carpenter (left front) is Butch, Scheie (right, kneeling) is Adam, Lindsey Gates (left rear) is Holly and Rachel Harker is Arlene in a tense momentin a hospital waiting room. Photo by Kevin BernePhotos by Kevin Berne

As an actor and director, there is seemingly nothing Danny Scheie cannot do. Over the summer, he dazzled in several drag roles in California Shakespeare Theater’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (read my review here), and now he’s doing a serious about face in the drama Next Fall with San Jose Repertory Theatre.

Geoffrey Nauffts’ play is formulaic to a degree, but it’s a sturdy formula, and Scheie – not to mention the rest of the excellent cast – bring out the best in this play about faith, love and family.

In the aftermath of a traffic accident, friends and family gather in a New York hospital waiting room, and playwright Nauffts flashes back over the last five years to bring us up to speed on who all these people are to each other and to the man in a coma and why there’s so much tension between some of them.

The central couple is Adam (Scheie) and Luke (Adam Shonkwiler). They met at a party on a rooftop where Adam was having a meltdown. A once-aspiring writer, he has spent the last six years selling candles in his friend Holly’s shop, and he realizes he has to make a change in his life. He insists he’s 40, but in deference to his mini-breakdown, he has likely shaved off a decade or so. The caretaker in this mid-life moment is 20something Luke, an adorable cater-watier/actor, who falls for Adam the moment he jokes that his “soul is fat.”


It was the mention of “soul” that likely piqued Luke’s attention. As a practicing Christian and guilt-plagued gay man, Luke has the surety of faith and the darkness of a sinner. He fully believes that when the Rapture comes, he and the other believers will ascend to heaven, while fully 2/3 of the world’s population, including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists like Adam, will have seven years to contemplate their fate and make better spiritual choices before being condemned to hell. While this sounds looney-tunes to Adam, for Luke it’s a spiritual and emotional truth, and there’s going to be no convincing either man otherwise.

Therein lies the spiritual conflict at the heart of Next Fall, and Nauffts is never preachy, though he is often funny (perhaps even funnier with Scheie bringing every ounce of his comic genius to Adam’s love of/frustration with Luke).

Another complication is that Luke is not out to his divorced parents, Butch (the masterful James Carpenter) and Arlene (Rachel Harker as sort of a modern spin on Blanche DuBois). There’s a great flashback scene when Butch pays a surprise visit to New York. Luke has tried to hurriedly de-gay the apartment, but Butch, though he uses the Bible as a crutch (according to his ex-wife), is also a smart man. When he finds himself alone drinking tea with Adam, he calls the cups “dainty” and the jig is up, but it isn’t. Butch doesn’t say anything, and by the time he and Adam see one another again, Butch can’t even remember where they met. Lots of denial happening there.

Also in that hospital waiting room are friends Holly (Lindsey Gates), a spiritual seeker who meditates, does yoga and still can’t quite find anything to replace the comfort of her Catholic upbringing, and Brandon (Ryan Tasker), a successful businessman and fundamentalist Christian friend of Luke’s who disapproves of Luke and Adam’s relationship because, though sex is sometimes necessary, love between men is not, nor is it acceptable.

Scheie and Shonkwiler make a fascinating couple with a believable bond between them in spite of all the complications. Scheie is the emotional heart of the play, and the ease with which he inhabits Adam’s quirks, manias and passions is extraordinary.

As the nearly 2 1/2-hour play winds down, Scheie and Carpenter really pull out the emotional stops (without overdoing it) and make Next Fall the moving experience it aims to be, even though Nauffts nearly topples his ending by co-opting Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to underscore the brevity of life and the mostly unconscious way we live it.

Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall continues through Nov. 10 at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $29-$74 (subject to change). Call 408-367-7255 or visit

Looking at the stars: Cal Shakes fans flames of Wilde’s Winderemere

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The central trio of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan includes (from left) Mrs. Erlynne (Stacy Ross), Lord Windermere (Aldo Billingslea) and Lady Windermere (Emily Kitchens). The California Shakespeare Theater production is directed by Christopher Liam Moore. Below: Kitchens and Billingslea work through the first big challenge of the Windermeres’ two-year marriage. Photos by Kevin Berne

If you want, as Oscar Wilde did, to make cogent and funny points about men and women, husbands and wives and the notion of good people vs. bad people, what better way to do that than by putting Danny Scheie in a dress and letting him unleash his inner Dame Maggie Smith?

Scheie’s performance as the Duchess of Berwick in the California Shakespeare Theater’s production Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde’s first major theatrical it, is one of many pleasures in director Christopher Liam Moore’s beguiling production. The play itself remains fascinating and relevant, but oh the visual delights of a period piece!

Set designer Annie Smart has fashioned a spacious London townhouse complete with crystal chandeliers on a terrace with draperies blowing in the cool breezes of Saturday’s beautiful opening-night performance. York Kennedy’s lights add elegance and shadows when appropriate to suit the melodrama. And costumer Meg Neville brings a sly sense of humor to the Victorian costumes, especially for leading lady Emily Kitchens as the young, self-righteous Lady Windermere. Neville makes her look like various slices of cake, with floppy bows and layers of plush stuffing. She’s a little like a little girl playing dress-up, which seems only appropriate given that the play takes her from naive, entitled girl to more worldly woman of experience. For the scandal-plagued Mrs. Erlynne (Stacy Ross), Neville cleverly puts in her in a gorgeous black-and-white gown to underscore the extreme ways the character is perceived — no gray area where she’s concerned.

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And then there’s Scheie, doing a captivating riff on Wilde’s Lady Bracknell as the society matron who pronounces all women good and all men bad. Scheie conquers that tricky territory of high comedy and more serious intent that Wilde explores in Windermere. He lets the audience in on the joke, allows the laughs to come in regular waves but never relinquishes the satirical barbs and their sharp, wounding points.

At this point in the 21st century, Wilde’s late 19th-century play seems so clearly to be about the folly of conservatism, which is really nothing more than closed-mindedness (willful or naturally occurring) or utter denial of human beings’ capacity for complexity and inability to fit neatly into boxes like “good” or “bad.” It makes for delicious theater as Wilde sets up Lady Windermere to believe her husband (the stalwart Aldo Billingslea) is having an affair with the much-gossiped-about Mrs. Erlynne. The whole of London society is buzzing about the seemingly flagrant affair Winderemere and Erlynne are conducting, but appearances are rarely what they seem.

The one complication in Wilde’s formula is that the Lord and his supposed mistress are completely oblivious that their interactions might be construed as adulterous by gossip-minded outside observers. That doesn’t seem quite plausible for two such intelligent characters, but then again, if they’d taken pains to conceal their interactions, we wouldn’t have much of a melodrama, and the melodrama here is such juicy fun.

But again, the fun is constantly tempered by something real. One Wildean character can toss off an aphorism like, “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” But later comes an observation like, “There are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely — or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.” And sometimes the wit and the sting come packaged neatly together: “Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.”

There are many levels on which to enjoy Moore’s sturdy production, and the performances allow insight into all of them. Kitchens is a slightly annoying Lady Windermere, a young mother so impressed by her righteousness that she all but collapses when she’s exposed to the real world outside the walls of her comfy cozy ideals. But Ross is a revelation as Mrs. Erlynne, a hardened, bitter woman who discovers she has a heart after all (and she doesn’t like it: “Somehow it doesn’t go with modern dress. It makes one look old,” she says).

Lady Windermere’s Fan has a lot to say to a country divided by politics, religion and combinations thereof. “Do you know that I am afraid that good people do a great deal of harm in this world? Certainly the greatest harm they do is that they make badness of such extraordinary importance.”

How nice it is to see badness of such goodness on the Cal Shakes stage.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Christopher Liam Moore for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan continues through Sept. 8 at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72 (subject to change). Call 510-548-9666 or visit Cal Shakes runs a free shuttle to and from the Oridna BART station and the theater.

A wildly Happy homecoming at TheatreWorks

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Terry (Richard Prioleau, left)), Gil (Colman Domingo, center), and Mo (Duane Boutté) have a conversation at the funeral home in the West Coast premiere of Domingo’s Wild With Happy, a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Mark Kitaoka. Below: Sharon Washington as Aunt Glo complicates the life of Domingo’s Gil. Photo by Tracy Martin

In his wildly cynical, angry, sad and, ultimately, happy new play Wild With Happy, playwright/actor (and former San Franciscan) Colman Domingo is doing several admirable things. In telling the story of a 40-year-old man who has just lost his mother, he is telling a modern fairy tale in which the mother – so often long dead and gone in such tales – is the driving force. And he’s pushing hard against the enormous cultural boulder that goes by various names – cynicism, snark, realism – but is really just the absence of hope.

In its West Coast premiere from TheatreWorks, Wild With Happy is a light farce until it isn’t. Mixed in with the broad comedy and zany road trip, there’s some heavy baggage involving the mother-son bond and the very real uses of enchantment, tradition and ceremony. It doesn’t all work in director Danny Scheie’s brisk, 95-minute production, but there’s an abundance of humor and heart.

Domingo is as charismatic as ever in the role of Gil, a frustrated 40-year-old actor who fled his native Philadelphia for the promise of stardom in New York. Things haven’t worked out all that well for Gil, and he’s further embittered by a bad breakup with a boyfriend. His eccentric family back in Philly – a Cinderella-loving mom, a wacky aunt – weigh heavily on him, and that’s part of the reason he’s feeling such guilt after his mother’s sudden passing. It’s a challenging role that Domingo has created for himself because Gil isn’t inherently likeable. As a person, he’s tightly wound, cranky and ever the victim of the world and its inhabitants not meeting with his approval or matching his high standards. But Domingo works had, both as playwright and actor, to keep pummeling Gil until he has no choice but to break down (through?) his defensive walls and let the emotion out and the people in.

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Reprising the role she created last fall at the Public Theater in New York, Sharon Washington is a force of nature as Aunt Glo, sister to Gil’s deceased mother (whom Washington also plays in flashbacks). Outfitted in velour track suits and full of strong opinions, Aunt Glo is all riled up. She doesn’t agree with Gil’s decision to have his mother cremated because it goes against everything she (and, by association, her community) believes in when it comes to honoring the dead. She wants an expensive casket, a proper visitation and a blow-out funeral and wake. She feels cheated of a death ritual that means something to her, and she’s convinced Gil, who has issues dealing with his grief, needs it more than anyone. Washington is a firecracker, exploding with each speech, arms splayed and voice pitched at peak volume. She’s hilarious but not a cartoon. Her issues with Gil are real and understandable, and you never forget that she’s grieving, too.

Of course there’s nowhere to head from here but a road trip to Disney World, with Aunt Glo and Terry the sweet man from the Philly funeral home (Richard Prioleau, a great choice for a Prince Charming type) chasing Gil and his sassy friend Mo (Duane Boutté in an underwritten role). It seems Aunt Glo placed a tracking device in her late sister’s Cinderella doll (say what now?). Set designer Erik Flatmo does what he can to make the road trip interesting and funny (we see both cars on stage and well-placed video cameras allow for close-ups from the front seats), but car chases are really better left to movies. Or real life.

Once in Orlando, the action shifts to the Cinderella suite of a Disney hotel, and Domingo lays on the sentiment pretty thick (lighting and media designer David Lee Cuthbert adds some nice firework-y, fairy tale-y touches). But that’s part of the point, right? To bust up Gil’s cynicism, it takes some pretty heavy machinery, and there’s no heavier sentimental machinery than that devised by Disney for its theme parks.

As entertaining as Wild With Happy is, I must admit that my favorite part of the evening was the extraordinary pre-show playlist playing in the theater as audience members took their seats. It was version after version of “Get Happy” – Rufus Wainwright, Puppini Sisters, Tony Bennett, among many others – ending with the inevitable Barbra Streisand/Judy Garland medley of “Get Happy” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” That music all by itself made me wild with happy.



Colman Domingo’s Wild With Happy continues through June 30 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73.Call 650-463-1960 or visit

Berkeley Rep’s Troublemaker is freakin A for awesome

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Robbie Tann (left) is Jake Miller and Gabriel King is Bradley Boatright in the world premiere of Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright by Dan LeFranc. Below: (l to r) Thomas Jay Ryan (left), Jennifer Regan (center) and Danny Scheie add some character to Troublemaker. Photos courtesy of

The joy, turbulence and agony of being a tween are so effectively conveyed in Dan LeFranc’s Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright, that you forgive him his excesses. After all, if you can’t be excessive telling the story of a troubled 12-year-old, when can you?

LeFranc’s play, now having its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is a coming-of-age story cleverly disguised as a hyperactive, hyper-verbal adventure story invented by a bright kid with some deep-seeded emotional problems. Constructed in three acts with two intermissions, the play begins as spin on the noir genre. Instead of hardboiled detectives and criminals, we have Bradley Boatright, a Rhode Island seventh grader. And instead of all that cool Sam Spade dialogue, we have Bradley’s own invented slang that’s a whole lot more lively and fun. The words “freak” and “freakin” carry much of the load, as do “spangles, “intel,” “crotch” and “a-hole.” It’s pretend swearing taken to such an outrageous level that it’s actually beautiful in its own poetic way.

Bradley, played with irresistible charm by Gabriel King (with the occasional touch of Pee-wee Herman), sees himself as a protector, first of his widowed mom (a believably harried Jennifer Regan), and second of his best friend, Mikey Minkle (a sweet Chad Goodridge). In the absence of his dad, whose death Bradley describes as “the best thing that ever happened to me ” and “a critical part of my origin story,” has made him the man of the house, and he takes that duty very seriously. The biggest threats at this moment – in the year of, as Bradley puts it, “19 mighty four” – are Jake Miller (Robbie Tann), a snobby bully at school who derides those in working-class Rhode Island because he and his family are in “business-class Rhode Island,” and Jake Miller’s dad (Thomas Jay Ryan), whom Bradley thinks is trying to “boyfriend-girlfriend” his mom.

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Act 1 is a paragon of new play excitement. LeFranc has a fresh voice, and director Lila Nuegebauer gets fully committed, adrenaline-fueled performances from her cast, which also includes Jeanna Phillips as Loretta Beretta, the smartest girl in school, the ever-hilarious Danny Scheie as a former troublemaker turned Nazi-like troublemaker hunter named Strugis Drang, and Ben Mehl and Matt Bradley as Jake Miller’s henchmen (by the way, when you name the bad guy, you have to say his first name and last name every time). The pace rarely flags for the play’s more than 2 1/2 hours (with tremendous assistance from Kris Stone’s zippy turntable set), and the three-act structure makes absolute sense as we go deeper into Bradley and begin to see the division between his reality and fantasy worlds.

Before things begin to get very real in Act 3, Act 2 runs out of steam as the fantasy gets too elaborate. With Bradley and Mikey on the lam to French Canada (“the wild, wild west of the north, northeast”), they encounter “homeless pirate zombie guys” and scouts from the local reform school as well as Jake Miller and his posse. My interest level had sagged mightily by the end of Act 2, especially when the action gets overtly 007-ish, but Act 3, which brings an important tonal shift, gets things back on track.

As much fun as this play is – and it is boatright-loads of fun – it also deals with something quite serious: that pivotal moment when a kid can transition from troublemaker to actual criminal, when the goofing around becomes menacing and childhood mischief can turn into a series of life choices no parent wants for a child. It’s clear that Bradley, who is fully invested in his life-as-adventure-story existence, with himself as the oft-misunderstood hero, can’t see himself the way others, like his mom, see him. Bradley’s not just a troublemaker. He’s also a kid whose troubles are making bad choices seem exciting.

Troublemaker is an exhilarating new play not just for its inventive language and extraordinary energy but also for how compassionate LeFranc is toward the emotional lives of kids who are too often dismissed as old enough to know better but too young to really matter.


Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright continues through Feb. 3 on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage. 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$77 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Cal Shakes’ Shrew anything but tame

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Kissed and cursed: Erica Sullivan is Katherine and Slate Holmgren is Petruchio in the California Shakespeare Theater production of The Taming of the Shrew. Below: The excellent supporting cast includes (from left) Liam Vincent, Dan Clegg, Danny Scheie and Nicholas Pelczar as suitors to the lovely Bianca. Photos by Kevin Berne.Photos by Kevin Berne

If you think you’ve seen The Taming of the Shrew, you might want to think again. Director Shana Cooper’s production – the season-closer for the California Shakespeare Theater – is fresh, feisty and full of insight. Many a Shrew can make you cringe, but very few, like this one, can actually make you lose yourself in the comedy, the provocation and the genuine emotion underneath it all.

Cooper brings a sense of contemporary flash and fun to the production, from the bright yellow accents in Scott Dougan’s double-decker set (backed by a colorful billboard-like ad for a product called “Tame”) to the zippy song mash-ups in the sound design by Jake Rodriguez. The music is especially fun. You can hear strains of Madonna’s “Material Girl” followed by a flash of the “Wonder Woman” theme song one minute and revel in almost an entire number (“Tom, Dick or Harry”) from Kiss Me Kate, the next. In this tale of love that is purchased, battled over and maybe even deeply felt, the song “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” takes on intriguing textures, both comic and dramatic. Even the lighting by York Kennedy has a crystal-clear energy all its own.

The real miracle of Cooper’s production is that there are interesting characters in it other than feral lovers Kate (Erica Sullivan) and Petruchio (Slate Holmgren). Credit this to successful direction and a superb cast full of some of the Bay Area’s most versatile comedians. Of particular note are the suitors to Kate’s beauty queen little sister, Bianca (Alexandra Henrikson): the tailor Gremio (Danny Scheie), dapper dan Hortensio (Liam Vincent) and intellectual Lucentio (Nicholas Pelczar). When the action shifts away from the central taming story, it doesn’t feel like we’re just biding time until we get back. Even the servants – Dan Clegg as Tranio, Dan Hiatt as Grumio, Joan Mankin in a trio of nicely etched roles – feel richer than usual. Rod Gnapp in the thankless role of Kate and Bianca’s father, even emerges more fully fleshed out than usual.

Scheie, as usual, gets away with comic murder. Even the way he says the name of his beloved, Bee-ANK-uh, gets a laugh to say nothing of what he does with the phrase “turkey cushions.” Pelczar, Clegg and Theo Black as Biondello have an inspired bit of shtick in the first act involving the exchange of hats. The Marx Brothers would be proud. Almost as good is the timing of Clegg and Pelczar exchanging clothes, undressed to their matching skivvies for the line beginning, “In brief…”

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There are so many wonderful details in this production that its 2 1/2 hours zip by. When Petruchio is late for his wedding, a description of his wild attire precedes his arrival, building up certain expectations that costumer Katherine O’Neill more than meets when he actually steps on stage. The outfit should be savored as a surprise, but let’s just say that amid the Saran Wrap there’s a starring role for Holmgren’s left butt cheek. Hilarious.

There is particular satisfaction in the richness of the Kate and Petruchio scenes. Their first scene together, which received a well-earned round of applause at Saturday’s autumnally temperate opening-night performance, is a prolonged seduction as much as it is an intense fight. Cooper, with the help of movement coach Erika Chong Shuch and fight director Dave Maier, turns it into a memorably acrobatic dance that infuses every line of dialogue with meaning. And it’s sexy as hell, thanks to Sullivan and Holmgren’s expert execution.

The trajectory of Kate and Petruchio’s love story – and that’s really what it is here – is clear from the first time they see each other, and each, almost in spite of themselves, likes what they see. Sullivan and Holmgren have red-hot chemistry from the very first, and they’re so good together you really do want them together. Kate’s got emotional troubles and Petruchio’s actually terrified by her, a state incompatible with his alpha-male bravado. But they both dive in, each a little crazed and carried away until they reach an understanding about how deeply they are willing to invest in their union and in each other. The taming here is mutual, and in the end it isn’t taming so much as maturing. Theirs will not be a shallow marriage of arrangement, though that’s how it begins. Unlike Bianca’s meet-cute relationship with her groom, Kate and Petruchio will likely still love on another tomorrow.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed director Shana Cooper and Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

California Shakespeare Theater’s The Taming of the Shrew continues through Oct. 16 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda (one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24). Free shuttle to and from the Orinda BART station and the theater. Tickets are $35-$66. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

Marvelous Much Ado closes Cal Shakes season

Andy Murray (right) as Benedick re-thinks his bachelor ways, much to the amazement of (from left) Nicholas Pelczar, Dan Hiatt and Nick Childress in Cal Shakes’ Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Kevin Berne. Below: Danny Scheie as Dogberry. Photo by Jay Yamada

Much Ado About Nothing can be one of Shakespeare’s trickier romantic comedies. It’s full of sparring lovers, great lines and thoroughly entertaining comic bits. But it also contains some harsh drama, faked death and edgy mischief making. Capturing just the right tone can help ease the audience through all those shifts, and that’s what eludes so many directors of the play.

Thankfully, California Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone finds fresh ways to meld all of Shakespeare’s fragments into a seamless and captivating whole. The darker hues seem perfectly comfortable alongside the bright comedy, and the romance bursts with charm and appeal. If you’re looking for a late-summer fling, head straight for the beautiful Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda.

There’s a warm autumnal hue surrounding Moscone’s production. Russell H. Champa’s lights lend a burnished glow to the Italian escapades on stage, and Daniel Ostling’s set, with its copper piping and airy construction, is alive with greenery, both real (the potted flowers and landscaping are courtesy of Will’s Weeders, the Bruns’ resident gardeners) and artificial. At the center of the stage is shimmering, manmade red-leafed tree, whose leaves occasionally flutter to the ground.

Even the cello music in Andre Pluess’ sound design is festive with a tinge of melancholy, and that’s just perfect.

All these design elements create a world in which Beatrice, a woman who thinks love has passed her by, can turn her merry war of words with Benedick into a later-life love story. It’s a world where the nasty malcontent Don John can play a brutal trick on innocent people. And it’s a world where a word-mangling sheriff can nearly walk away with the play.

The villainous Don John and Dogberry, the master of malapropisms, are played by a single actor, Danny Scheie, and his virtuoso performances ignite sparks in the play where there are rarely sparks.

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Don John is so often played as simply a means to a plot-twisting end, but Scheie takes such joy in the man’s misanthropy and relishes each line so much that he becomes an irresistible baddie. It’s almost a shame that Don John disappears in the play’s second half, but that absence affords Scheie the opportunity to sink his teeth into Dogberry, a character frequently defined by his hilarious inability to use words correctly.

Scheie doesn’t go that route. Almost surprisingly, he lets the verbal comedy become secondary to the character’s personality. In Scheie’s expert hands, Dogberry is not a bumbler. He’s a professional working at the top of his game – or so he thinks. There’s a certain arrogance in the man that comes from the pride he takes in his work as well as an unmistakable passion to be the best constable imaginable.

The fact that we see how inept this man is heightens and deepens the comedy. It’s a masterful creation, and Scheie is a wonder.

In any Much Ado we expect Beatrice and Benedick to hurl insults at one another with comic aplomb. Dominique Lozano and Andy Murray do that and a whole lot more. Lozano shows us a strong, vivacious woman who is boldly attempting to buck the notion of a spinster, while Murray gives us a man’s man who is aching to find a soulmate. Both are utterly charming actors, so it’s no surprise they spend so much time beguiling the audience – especially Murray in his asides. At one point, his exuberance leads him to kiss an audience member.

I saw Murray play Benedick at Lake Tahoe’s Sand Harbor about 14 years ago, and though he was good then, he’s great now. He finds nuance in each line, and the character feels lived in.

This Much Ado is nearly three hours but feels much shorter. That’s a testament to Moscone’s beautifully calibrated production and the excellent work of the ensemble, which also includes a fiery Andrew Hurteau as Friar Francis, Dan Hiatt as Leonato, Emily Kitchens as Hero and Nick Childress as Claudio.

It’s a spectacularly lovely production (the gorgeous late-summer weather on opening night sure didn’t hurt) and a sumptuous end to another great Cal Shakes season.


Cal Shakes’ Much Ado About Nothing continues through Oct. 15 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, just off Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Tickets are $34-$70. Call 510 548-9666 or visit for information.

Theater review: `You, Nero’

Opened May 20, 2009 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
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Danny Scheie solidifies his reputation as one of the Bay Area’s best, most original actors as the title character in Amy Freed’s You, Nero on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage. Photos by

A funny thing happened on the way to `You, Nero’
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Berkeley Repertory Theatre ends a spectacular 41st season with local playwright Amy Freed’s You, Nero – and it’s a fitting conclusion after the varied, adventurous delights of Yellowjackets, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Arabian Nights, In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play) and The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

In a theater world that seems to be contracting and cowering, Berkeley Rep continues to prove its mettle by challenging and rewarding audiences at every turn.

And so it falls to the tyrant of a crumbling empire to end the season in a burst of laughter.

You, Nero has been somewhat revised and re-cast since its premiere earlier this year at South Coast Repertory, and though it hasn’t yet reached its zenith, this sharp, thoughtful comedy is definitely on the ascendant. Freed, author of The Beard of Avon and Restoration Comedy among others, writes for people with highly developed brains and funny bones – and they don’t necessarily have to be attached. She can be intellectual, low brow or both, and she’s probably incapable of not entertaining or engaging her audience.

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For two-plus hours, Freed, working again with director Sharon Ott (a former artistic director of Berkeley Rep), pulls laughs out of a fairly serious subject: the end of the Roman Empire. While democracy fell victim to corruption, nihilism, degradation, persecution, the citizens (the ones who weren’t being tortured or starved, anyway) looked the other way or were distracted by mindless mass entertainments (how fitting that You, Nero opened the same night as the “American Idol” finale).

And there, surfing Rome’s tidal wave of destruction, is the emperor, Nero Caesar.

Freed’s basic idea here borrows from Dickens. Instead of three ghosts appearing to show Nero the error of his ways before Christmas morning, she creates a Jiminy Cricket-like conscience in the form of a playwright, Scribonius of Carthage, whose art will expose Nero’s flaws, the psychological scars of his childhood and the moral goodness he has most likely repressed.

Happily, Nero resists all attempts at course correction, and his reign ends in a fiery rock concert.

Effortlessly blending contemporary and classical, Freed’s comedy generates continuous laughter. Ott’s cast descends from comedy nirvana with Danny Scheie as Nero serving as lord and master of the merry mayhem.

Jeff McCarthy (of Broadway’s Urinetown: The Musical, above with Scheie) as Scribonius could arguably be called the show’s protagonist, and he’s a great guide for the audience, but the play gets a comic turbo charge every time Scheie struts on stage looking every inch the delightful despot in costume designer Paloma H. Young’s slick toga finery.

Scheie is such a uniquely gifted comic actor that he can generate laughs from syllables instead of entire words. One of the evening’s longest laughs comes from Scheie uttering one word – “no” – because his timing is so expert. Childish, imperious, frightening and flamboyant, Scheie’s energetic Nero is a one-man spectacle as he veers from giddy delight to tyrannical tempest to nearly genuine introspection.

Though widely admired here in the Bay Area, Scheie emerges a true star in this play, and it’s impossible to imagine You, Nero having future life without him.

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To be sure, this is Scheie’s show, but the supporting cast is superb. In addition to McCarthy’s solid Scribonius, we have the wonderful Kasey Mahaffy as Fabiolo, a hot young actor who unfortunately catches the eye of Nero, and Lori Larsen as Agrippina, Nero’s mother and occasional bedmate (yes, there are plenty of incest jokes). Berkeley native Susannah Schulman (above, with McCarthy) is fantastic as Poppaea, Nero’s ruthless lover, for whom life at court is the be-all, end-all of existence.

Whether playing the actors Batheticus and Patheticus or the wise Romans Burrus and Seneca, Mike McShane and Richard Doyle are a hoot, especially when they don skullcaps to play the eunuchs Beppo and Zippo.

There are comic moments in Nero that, to paraphrase Freed, are so profane they’re sacred. So why doesn’t the play feel like it’s completely there? Partly because of the split focus shared by Nero and Scribonius. The other has to do with Nero’s rock star epiphany, when he eschews (gesundheit!) the art of traditional theater to do his own egomaniacal thing.

What’s needed here is a full-on Hedwig and the Angry Inch moment, but we get a half-hearted attempt (original music and sound design by Stephen LeGrand and Eric Drew Feldman) that has the trappings of rock (Erik Flatmo’s set gives way to a scene right out of Gypsy and Peter Maradudin’s lights go appropriately rock concert crazy). But where the scene should rage, it sort of fizzles.

There’s work yet to be done on You, Nero, though what’s here is pretty rich. This play is too good to follow Rome’s example of going down in flames.


Amy Freed’s You, Nero continues through June 28 on the Berkeley Repertory Theatre Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.


Page to Stage, an ongoing series of conversations with theater artists, brings You, Nero playwright Amy Freed to the Thrust Stage with Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone for a free event at 7 p.m. June 15.

Danny Scheie: Leading man at last

Danny Scheie NeroI’ve written before about Bay Area actors whose names, just by appearing on a cast list in a program, excite certain expectations and delights.

Danny Scheie (at right, photo by Henry DiRocco) is one of those actors. When I first started covering theater in San Francisco 17 years ago, he was better known as a director, but then I saw him as Hermes, the rollerblading imp in the Fifth Floor production of Orestes. From that moment on, whether behind the scenes or in front of the footlights, Scheie is a theater personality who always benefits whatever he’s involved with.

Graduating from supporting player to leading man, Scheie is starring in You, Nero, the new play by San Francisco playwright Amy Freed, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

I had the chance to sit down with Scheie and talk to him for a San Francisco Chronicle article, which appeared in the May 17 Pink Section. Read it here.

You, Nero continues through June 28 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.

New Amy Freed play added to Berkeley Rep season

[show’s dates have changed since original posting: Previews begin May 15, opening is May 20 and closing is June 28]

Local playwright Amy Freed (above) will collaborate once again with director (and former Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director) Sharon Ott on a new play that has just been added to the Berkeley Rep season.

You, Nero will play on the Thrust Stage May 15 through June 28, 2009.

The play will star Danny Scheie as Nero, emperor of Rome, famous for playing the fiddle while his city burned. In Freed’s comedy, not only does he fiddle, but he also fills the Colosseum with sex and decadence as he commands a washed-up scribe to create an extravaganza that flatters his pitiful regime.

This marks the third collaboration between Freed and Ott, who have paired previously on The Beard of Avon and Restoration Comedy.

Nero, a co-production with South Coast Repertory, marks the second show Ott will direct for Berkeley Rep this season. She is at the helm of Crime & Punishment, in a new adaptation by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, in February of 2009.

“You, Nero is the perfect way to end the coming year, on a high note of incisive, satiric wit,” said Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone. “Modern American life bears a remarkable resemblance to Nero’s Rome, and Amy Freed mines the parallels to wonderful comic effect.”

For information visit