Stripped down Shakespeare tickles SC’s funny bone
This is Danny Scheie’s seventh time directing “The Comedy of Errors,” but his second for Shakespeare Santa Cruz, which debuts on July 9 and runs until Aug. 28 at the Mainstage Theater.
Scheie has carried out nationally-renowned work as an actor, but directing “The Comedy of Errors” holds a special place for him. “For me, I love this play and part of the reason I love it is because I know it too well and it’s sort of a true thing about Shakespeare that … we’re always told he’s infinite,” he says. “You can study him your whole life and learn something every time you see [a Shakespeare play], and I actually think that’s true.”
“The Comedy of Errors” reveals a story of mistaken identity between two brothers and their servants, who are both sets of twins. The play is one of Shakespeare’s earliest, and one of his shortest. Scheie dismisses the standard contention that “The Comedy of Errors” should not be placed amongst Shakespeare’s career highlights: “Hamlet,” “Othello,” and “Twelfth Night.” He explains that, “Some people dismiss ‘The Comedy of Errors’ as Shakespeare’s most simple play; that it’s only plot and that he’s not using these great themes, which I don’t think is true. I think you actually can find them in there.”
Since “The Comedy of Errors” is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, some critics exclude it from his strongest works because they claim he was still experimenting with form and had not developed his style yet. “Twelfth Night” is the play most commonly used to support this claim since it deals with the same theme of mistaken identity as “The Comedy of Errors,” but on an arguably more complex level. Recent scholarship, however, indicates the importance of social relationships and plot development in “The Comedy of Errors,” to which Scheie argues its popularity as a sold-out production. “The play … has a machine-like plot [and] is, in a way, Shakespeare’s best,” Scheie says.
Scheie places confidence in a stripped down and minimalist version of Shakespeare. “Shakespeare’s plays were written for a wooden stage with a couple of entrances. They weren’t written for moving scenery, hydraulics or even flats flying in and out. They were written for just the actors and the language and a couple pieces of wood,” he says. This is the reason Scheie has chosen to redirect the focus of the production to the complexity of its plot and language. “It releases a lot of fun of the play when you do it with as little as possible—rather loading on stuff to make it more interesting,” he says. There is no doubt that like most of Shakespeare’s plays, “The Comedy of Errors” is loaded with wordplay and puns, making a stripped-down production essential to the viewing experience of the play.
In addition, Scheie explains that acting out the plays has helped him to fully grasp the structure and power that they hold. His experience working with famous writers’ works when he participated in “guerilla” Shakespeare has paid off: “The more you kick it around, the less reverent Shakespeare becomes and the more it comes alive.”
This same premise gives reason to why Scheie chose to have the twin brothers played by one actor. He says, “I think it releases the theme of mistaken identity.” In addition, having the audience recognize the dual roles and singular actor gives the viewers a chance to become part of the play itself. “We are letting them peek back stage. We’re not doing special effects; we’re not trying to hide the fact that we don’t have enough actors to do this play, but if you come this far with us, there will be a charge and it will be fun.”
“The Comedy of Errors” opens July 19 at 7:30 p.m. on the Mainstage Theater at Shakespeare Santa Cruz on the UC Santa Cruz campus. Tickets are $14-$20. For more information, call 459-2159 or visit Shakespearesantacruz.org.
Photo caption: on stage Danny Scheie (right) first appeared with Shakespeare Santa Cruz as Rosencrantz in 1985’s “Rosencrantz and Guidenstern are Dead” (also pictured is John Zerbe as Guidenstern). He would go on to act in numerous productions for SSC, and serve as artistic director from 1993-1995.