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

A happy ending for Happy Days

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Patty Gallagher is a gun-toting Winnie in the Cal Shakes production of Happy Days by Samuel Beckett. Photo by Kevin Berne

In the world of live theater, you never know from where the drama will come.

For California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jonathan Moscone and his production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, there was already a certain amount of drama in the choice of the play – the first time Moscone had tackled Beckett and the first time Beckett would be performed in all the outdoor glory of the Bruns Amphitheater.

As a way to counteract the risk of doing an essentially one person play (one person who, by the way, is stuck in a mound of muck for the entire play), Moscone cast Oscar-nominee Marsha Mason, one of those comforting and familiar actors we’ve watched, admired and enjoyed for years. Add a little celebrity pizzazz to a play potential patrons might not know much about and you have a theatrical event.

But oh, the drama. Deep into the rehearsal period, Mason had to exit the production for, as the theater company put it, “personal reasons.” Suddenly the event is now back to the red zone of risk.

In steps Patty Gallagher, an associate professor of theater arts at UC Santa Cruz. Where patrons might have said, “Marsha Mason, how wonderful,” they now say, “Patty who?”

Well Patty Gallagher is a hero for stepping into a difficult role in a difficult play (a role she’d done before and a play she teaches) and even more of a hero for a performance that is full of life and a kind of joy you don’t expect in a Beckett musing on mortality. The valiant effort is applause-worthy enough. But what she does with the role goes beyond heroic. She’s a revelation.

Moscone and his company embraced the drama in a way that actually enhances the experience of watching the play. More specifically, Moscone began blogging about directing the show, about Mason’s departure and about working with Gallagher and her co-star, Dan Hiatt, who appears intermittently but is essential to the power of the play. In a frank and open way, Moscone exposes the stress of the experience but also the support he received and the depth he was able to reach with Gallagher and Hiatt. Here’s a sample of Moscone writing on Aug. 3 in an entry titled “I’m nervous but I’m in love”:

“Have frankly been quite exhausted, physically that is, not mentally or spiritually, from this week’s work. But I have to say, I am in a place I thought I’d never be. I cherish this project in a way that surpasses any other piece I have worked on in my life. Partly it’s the events of the week that make me feel more connected to this piece than perhaps to other plays that haven’t seen themselves through a real crisis-turned-opportunity. And a great part is this play. Patty (Gallagher) makes me love this work and have a deep emotional connection to Beckett, something I thought would never happen.”

Knowing what went on behind the scenes adds an extra layer of excitement to the play, and that layer underscores what Beckett already seems to be driving at: amid all the garbage, mud, dirt and pain of life, we can choose to view all of it with gratitude, through our connection to others and with the simple joy of being alive. That’s what I took away from Gallagher’s ebullient Winnie, a formally dressed woman stuck up to her waist in a dirt mound (Todd Rosenthal’s set pours right off the Bruns stage and into the audience).

Winnie wakes in the morning at the sound of a piercing bell, performs the routine that sustains her, attempts to chat with her husband, Willie, who lives in another part of the dirt mound, and tries valiantly to find things to be cheerful about, whether it’s memories, a mumbled word from Wilie or the pleasure of language itself. She is quite literally being buried alive (in Act 2 she’s buried up to her neck) but she is more alive than many of the people we know.

I have often found Beckett intimidating – the gnawing sense of not getting it tends to destroy my ability to enjoy the play. But several Beckett productions stick in my mind as having helped me relax enough to really listen and experience Beckett – one was Cutting Ball Theatre’s Krapp’s Last Tape earlier this year. The other was years and years ago, in a small theater at the Central YMCA in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Hiatt co-starred as Lucky in Waiting for Godot, and he was brilliant. Dennis Moyer directed the production for Fine Arts Repertory Theatre, and it starred Joe Bellan and John Robb.

That hugely enjoyable production was the first time I realized that Beckett could be equal parts brilliance and boredom, entertainment and brain-stretching philosophy. That’s what Happy Days is, and it also feels like therapy for our world at this particular moment in history. May we all be as lucky or as resilient, as resourceful or as valiant as Winnie and, like her, go down singing.

Backstage drama, onstage drama – it’s all the same thing when it feeds the audience and gives us more to muse upon. There’s a happy ending for this production of Happy Days, but the ending of the play itself is a miraculous blend of the shattering, the beautiful and the inspirational. There’s no such thing as happiness as a destination – only moments, here and gone.

And can I add, one great moment of happiness in this production came from the intermission music mix. While the audience milled about the Bruns, an instrumental version of the theme song from the TV show “Happy Days” played, and I could think of nothing more appropriate.


Cal Shakes’ Happy Days continues through Sept. 6 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. Call 510 548-9666 or visit for information.