As a producer or director, do you need a good reason to choose a particular era for your play? I’d say no.
Purists may get annoyed if the setting seems too random or wacky, but having seen a few of Danny Scheie’s Shakespeare Santa Cruz plays back in the day—some of which “wacky” doesn’t begin to describe—I can honestly say I’ve never been bothered by even the most anachronistic tweaking of Shakespeare convention. I’m there for your trailer park Two Gentlemen of Verona! Temporal displacement is fun, people!
In the program notes for Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s new production of The Comedy of Errors, director Kirsten Brandt says she chose to set it in the “identity-searching ’80s” because, “The play compels us to consider ideas of family, marriage, gender, and identity.” Uh, no. This production doesn’t uncover layers of meaning in what has got to be Shakespeare’s most ridiculous farce, because there are no layers.
The plot, such as it is, requires us to believe that characters with no outward signs of brain damage would not be able to tell the difference between two sets of twins with entirely different personalities and ways of speaking, not to mention that these long-lost twins have to have the same exact names (wait, did their parents give them those names, ’cause that really makes no sense) and for some reason be dressed exactly the same for the entire day or so over which the story takes place. It’s just plain silly.
My point is that there doesn’t need to be a fancy, schmancy reason to set this absurdist craziness in the ’80s. It just works. The neon and pastels of designer Dipu Gupta’s set is the perfect cross between Miami Vice and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (both the song and the movie). The Fast Times at Ridgemont High daze that the cast maintains as they sway and bob through every scene is just right for the material, but more importantly, they understand (as does director Brandt, clearly) that the laughs for a 2019 audience are not really going to come from the story. Heck, maybe this was true in 1619, as well. After all, does anyone remember the plot to Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton movies? Of course not. We remember the gags.
The cast here, from Jennifer Erdmann and Patty Gallagher—both doing double duty as the separated twin sisters and their twin servants, respectively—to Mike Ryan, Madeline Wall, Uche Elueze and others in very funny supporting roles, recognize this as setup for some old-school physical comedy, and they go all out. I’m talking spontaneous dance parties, wet willies, slow-motion pro-wrestling moves, Three-Stooges-type eye pokes, and extended crotch-kick routines.
If you’re thinking that sounds pretty lowbrow … well, yeah! This is Shakespeare comedy, baby! The only thing that’s really thought-provoking at all is that the decision to gender-swap the two sets of twins (all four characters are men in Shakespeare’s original) leads to an interesting queer-romance angle between Erdmann as the visiting Antiphola of Syracuse and Wall as Luciana, sister-in-law of Antiphola of Ephesus, where the action is set. The actors tease out some interesting lines in the dialogue that make this choice seem pretty natural. But again, I don’t think it even needs a rationale—it’s fun.
A decade of ’80s revival, and especially the last few years of Stranger Things fever, have set us up to enjoy this take on The Comedy of Errors. Kudos to whoever put together the soundtrack of era-appropriate songs that float through the show, from Wang Chung to Tears for Fears to Depeche Mode. If, like me, you’re not always a fan of Shakespeare’s goofier comedies, you’ll appreciate how far this cast and crew are willing to go for laughs.
‘The Comedy of Errors’ runs through Sept. 1 at the Grove in DeLaveaga Park, 501 Upper Park Rd., Santa Cruz. $35-$60. santacruzshakespeare.org.