I had an exceedingly satisfying feeling about a half hour into The Comedy of Errors at freeFall Theatre last weekend. It was a feeling of relief, of gratitude, of liberation from the past and excitement for the future. The feeling said: "Quality Shakespeare is back. For real. And not just now." It was a feeling that we in the Bay area are no longer in exile from the English language's greatest writer, that now there was a local theater genuinely committed to the Bard's masterpieces, that certain texts that could easily shape our modern consciousness were once more coming to us.
The Comedy of Errors may be a minor part of the Shakespeare canon, but there it was, beautifully played and directed and designed, and if this fine production could follow on the heels of freeFall's superb Midsummer Night's Dream, well, then, we might just witness anything — the melancholy Richard II, the philosophical Measure for Measure, maybe even an Antony and Cleopatra or a Lear. What Shakespeare has to tell us about our own lives — that's what we've been missing, and now it's clear that freeFall is genuinely on the case. So there's another good reason to go to the theater. So there's another good reason to live on the west coast of Florida.
I say all this while admitting that Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare's most frivolous plays — very possibly his first play — and that it doesn't offer a fraction of what you can find in the later works. Still, the freeFall production is so splendid, you'll have a fine time, profundity or not.
Consider the story: two twins, each named Antipholus, have been split up by a shipwreck. One grows up in Syracuse, the other in Ephesus. They both have slaves named Dromio — another pair of identical twins. When Antipholus of Syracuse goes in search of his lost brother, all four men end up in the same town — which makes things extremely confusing to just about everyone, not least Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus. The Dromios can't keep their masters straight, the Antipholi can't distinguish one Dromio from the next, Adriana entertains the wrong man and spurns her husband, unmarried Antipholus of Syracuse hits on Adriana's sister, who thinks it's her good-for-nothing brother-in-law cruising for a threesome.
There's slapstick, the poor Dromios get beaten repeatedly for being the wrong slave, and there's a wonderful, sanity-restoring finale. The play is famously brief. The pleasure is authentic.
And the freeFall production, expertly directed by Eric Davis, is imaginative and surprising. Start with Greg Bierce's brightly rendered set, a city street flanked by "Ephesus Coffee" (a Starbucks lookalike) and "The Ephesian Inn and Sports Pub." Into this environment come characters in colorful contemporary dress (by Mike and Kathy Buck Designs), all of whom speak Shakespeare's lines as if they were born to them. In a daring coup de théâtre, the two Antipholi are played deftly by identical twins Alex and Graham Miller, and their two servants are played for maximum comedy by twins Paul and Robbie Rescigno.
Then there are the actors who don't have twins — the superb Alison Burns, who plays Adriana as an assertive but (apparently) neglected wife, and the delightful Alexandra Jennings who, as Adriana's sister, is shocked and scandalized when it appears that her feckless brother-in-law is making advances. Matthew McGee, whose specialty is outrageous caricature, gives us the exorcist Dr. Pinch as a cracked Southern evangelist (he also has a few hilarious moments on stage as Nell, the least attractive woman in recorded history), and John Lombardi, a freeFall regular, is anxious and anguished as Egeon, bereaved husband and father, who must raise a thousand marks or be executed by the Duke of Ephesus.
Other fine performances are turned in by Becca McCoy as an Abbess with a secret, Christopher Rutherford as goldsmith Angelo, Ward Smith as the conscience-stricken Duke (dressed as a police officer), and Natalie Symons as a seductive Courtesan. When all confusions are unraveled at the end, Jo Averill-Snell bathes the stage in paradisal golden light: Shakespeare's comedies don't just end happily, they end with heavenly order.
So all right, freeFall, I'm excited. Which of the 37 plays is to be next? A tragedy? A history? Can you find us a worthy Falstaff or Portia? How will you interpret Lady Macbeth or Henry V or Prospero?
You know, suddenly there's one more good reason to be a critic.