Before Orphan Black, before the Olsen twins, before The Patty Duke Show, Elizabethan audiences laughed their arses off at the misunderstandings arising from mistaken identities in The Comedy of Errors. Humans have a long history of fascination with stories about identical twins. Like all Shakespeare’s plays, The Comedy of Errors revolves around fundamental human questions, in this case: What is the nature of the Self? How do others’ views of us affect our lives? Who am I really, if I can be mistaken for someone else?
Just ask Christina Gardner, who looks a bit like me. She is often addressed, in complete seriousness, as “Violet” on the streets of Woodstock. We both find our doppelgänger status funny but unnerving.
You don’t have to think about these existential problems in order to enjoy The Comedy of Errors, as presented by Woodstock’s Bird-on-a-Cliff Theatre Company. This summer’s production runs from July 15 through August 7, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, at 5 p.m., on the outdoor stage at the Comeau Property.
The play is based on Menaechmi by the Roman playwright Plautus, but Shakespeare expanded on the theme of twins by adding a second set. As two young men named Antipholus, twins separated at birth, blunder through Syracusa being mistaken for each other, their servants, twins named Dromio, exponentially multiply the confusion, since even their masters can’t tell them apart. Slapstick and puns heighten the humor, and of course, there’s a happy ending.
When asked why Bird-on-a-Cliff chose to do The Comedy of Errors, co-director David Aston-Reese replied, “We like to keep it light. We don’t want to see 13 dead people at the end, while there are mothers and children in the audience.” On the other hand, the play begins with a threatened execution, reminding us of the darkness beneath Shakespeare’s humor.
Nicola Shearer co-directs, as she has for several seasons, freeing Aston-Reese to make his appearance onstage as the Duke, who frames the action at the beginning and end. “Olivier could direct himself,” observed Aston-Reese, “but he had 12 stage managers.”
The current production marks the 21st anniversary of Bird-on-a-Cliff’s annual Shakespeare festival. “I never get tired of Shakespeare,” said Aston-Reese, who co-founded the company with his wife, Elli Michaels. “The language is so great. And I’m just beginning to absorb Elizabethan culture and to understand the legal system,” which underlies so many of the plots, at a time when London Bridge was lined with spikes bearing the heads of people recently executed.
As Monday’s rehearsal was about to begin, town supervisor Jeremy Wilber passed by to hand Michaels a letter from China. On Wilber’s recent trip to Beijing, he brought along Shakespeare posters donated by Bird-on-a-Cliff. His hosts wrote to thank the theater and offer hospitality if the actors would like to perform in China. “Who wants to go to Beijing?” called out Michaels, crossing to the stage in the wild russet wig of her character in the play, a courtesan.
The rehearsal, covering the second act, began with Joe Bongiorno, who plays one of the Dromios, advancing through the audience shouting Elizabethan epithets over their heads, along the lines of “Thy vile canker-blossom’d countenance!” and “Nature made a foul blot with thee, scambling, outfacing dog-ape!” — demonstrating the Bard’s extravagant nimbleness with insults. Then actors, in 1970s dress, confronted each other onstage, with Jose Torres, as Antipholus of Ephesus, mistaking Scott Schutzman for his own Dromio. Justin Waldo, dressed identically to Torres, plays Antipholus of Syracusa, confounding William M. Sanderson as Angelo, to whom the other Antipholus owes money.
Frustrations mount, along with accusations of madness and knavery delivered by Julie Szabo, playing Adriana, the wife of Antipholus, and her sister, Luciana, played by Lucy Ann Miller. Rounding out the cast are Tad Richards, M. Furé Julé, Robert Sheridan, Kevin Kraft, and Rhonda Joseph.
Starting August 12, Bird-on-a-Cliff will switch to more modern comedy with four weekends of Severely Fractured Fairytales, written by Aston-Reese and Jerry James, also on the Comeau Property stage.
Bird-on-a-Cliff Theatre Company presents The Comedy of Errors from July 15 through August 7, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, at 5 p.m., on the outdoor stage at the Comeau Property, 45 Comeau Drive, Woodstock. Admission is free, and donations are invited. Feel free to bring a blanket or chairs and a picnic. For more information, see https://www.birdonacliff.org or call 845-247-4007.