Shakespeare probably had no idea what could happen when he had the lovely Luciana cry, “Where others have the arm, show us the sleeve!” in The Comedy of Errors. But Sean Daniels, directing the play in a bright, splashy start to Cal Shakes’ 2004 season, must have been up all night giggling when he struck on a clever way to handle one of the biggest challenges of staging the story of two sets of estranged twins getting tangled up — financially, legally, and romantically — in the ancient city of Ephesus.
The question is how to cast the twins. Do you pick out two sets of roughly matching people, as Sub Shakes did so well a few years back, or just choose the four funniest people you can and pay close attention to the costuming? Here Daniels chose door number three: cast two funny people and pair them with Chris Brown’s larger-than-life-size rod puppets made up and costumed to look like their twins, down to exaggerated bald spots and silly hats. The actors each pilot their doppelgänger with one hand and put the other through the puppet’s sleeve, so at least one (and sometimes both) of the puppet’s arms are “live.” Andy Murray and Ron Campbell seem to be enjoying it as they each play half of a set of twins. Campbell even plays the “watch me drink while the puppet talks” card in the scene where one Dromio beats upon a gate held fast by the other Dromio.
In fact, although all of the performances are strong, this might as well be called the The Comedy of Dromios. Campbell rises to the challenge. He has a running gag where he interacts directly with the musicians to punch up the slapsticky elements of the two Dromios. Meanwhile Murray’s Antipholuses swagger and muse, although Murray wrings some unexpected tenderness from his nonpuppet Antipholus as he courts Luciana (and watching him suck face with a puppet is a little weird but very funny). The other puppets — a gruffly hilarious goldsmith, the duke of Ephesus, various townspeople — are expertly steered by black-clad actors whose exposed and very expressive faces add depth to the proceedings.
Stacy Ross, one of only two actors who doesn’t get a puppet, has been made up to her fiery best in bright red hair and trailing dress. She’s wonderful vamping it up as the maligned wife Adriana, who has to watch the man she thinks is her husband fall in love with her sister. She and James Carpenter (Egeon, wrongly jailed father of the Antipholi) manage to hold their own in the sea of puppets; as two of the most serious characters in the play, they are dignified without seeming out of place.
As firmly as I believe kids can handle Shakespeare, some of his plays are much more family-friendly than others. Errors stands squarely in that camp, and nowhere more so than in this production, with its brilliantly colored costumes and puppets against blobby white set pieces. The seamless integration of the Tymphanic Errants, who hang out stage left and punctuate the action with well-placed bells, whistles, and paradiddles, adds to the charm. This one’s a keeper for kids and adults alike.