Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors is often harshly criticized for, among other things, not being all that funny. Watching Sonoma County Repertory Theater's wacky new outdoor staging of the much-maligned, infrequently performed show, it's hard to believe that such stuff could ever not have been funny.
The Rep's delightfully inspired production, directed by David Lear, takes Shakespeare's fluffy tale of mistaken identity and packs it with bizarre humor, wildly outsized performances and a barrage of laugh-inducing silliness. The production is so full of creative ideas and clever bits of business that the audience barely registers one random flash of comic invention before another one comes crashing through the door.
Like an Airplane satire, not all of the jokes land softly, but there are so many gags coming so fast and furious that it doesn't even matter, because most of them do work. Lear sets the slapstick tone with an opening scene during a grand masquerade party in which two klutzy henchmen pursue a ragged criminal through the party guests, frequently colliding with each other or tangling themselves in their own ropes. As the duke of Ephesus, Larry Williams is like something out of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, delivering his opening proclamation in a high, silly voice that resembles a giggle pumped up on steroids.
The story can be confusing, and Lear uses this attribute to good effect, further emphasizing the baffling plot by setting the action amid an Escher-esque set of upside down pillars, mysterious doors and stairways that go nowhere. As explained by the Syracusean merchant Egeon (Kit Grimm), there are, somewhere in the world, two sets of identical twins, separated at birth: a pair of young men named Antipholus (both played with increasingly baffled outrage by Freddy Lambert), and another pair named Dromio (Peter Ward, going eight hilarious directions at once). In the following scenes, we learn that each Dromio has become the servant to each Antipholus, one pair long since ensconced in the city of Ephesus, the other pair newly arrived in Ephesus after a shipwreck that left them wandering the world.
Expected misunderstandings ensue when the two pairs of men are constantly assumed to be each other. The biggest problems occur when Adriana (Denise Elia), wife to the Ephesian Antipholus, mistakes the Syracusian Antipholus as her husband, with additional mayhem involving a custom-made gold chain delivered by accident to the visiting Antipholus. The results of this confusion nearly land one of the Antipholuses in the madhouse.
The entire cast is energetic and inventive, especially Elia (looking gorgeous as she wields a whip, delivering her lines like in an over-the-top style reminiscent of old Hollywood movies); Samson Hood, as both the chain-selling merchant and the local exorcist Dr. Pinch; and Diane Dearmore as Luce, Adriana's ever-watchful servant.
Lear takes chances, and for the most part they pay off, especially his way of teasing the source material while simultaneously making it work. A couple of lengthy speeches, which might have caused the action to stall, are turned into little comic masterpieces, as the other characters either attempt to break in or fall asleep one by one. In this frequently brilliant, high-energy Comedy, the audience will definitely not be sleeping. They'll be too busy laughing.
'Comedy of Errors' runs Thursday&–Sunday through Sept. 5. Ives Park, corner of Willow Street and Jewell Avenue, Sebastopol. 7pm. $20&–$25; Thursday night, pay what you can. 707.823.0177.