If you go to the brisk, high-spirited, physically witty and generally funny Dell'Arte production of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and you aren't familiar with the play, here's the premise you need to know: An old man shows up in the marketplace of Ephesus, which is remarkably like the Arcata Plaza. Because he is from a hostile state, he is by law condemned to death.
But he tells a sad story about twins — his twin daughters and the twin boys he bought as servants for them, all infants. In a shipwreck years ago, his wife, one daughter and one of the boys were swept away. The survivors who recently set out to search for their twins are now themselves missing, so he came here to look for them.
The Ephesians are moved, but can't disobey the law. The Duchess allows him until sundown to try to raise the considerable fine and save his life. The rest of the play revolves around the fact that both sets of twins are now in Ephesus: the daughters, both the traveling Antiphola who has just arrived, and the Antiphola who has lived here for years (both played by Joan Schirle) and their twin servants named Dromio (Andrew Eldredge and Jerome Yorke.) Multiple mistaken identities result in the mayhem that ensues.
You don't have to memorize this — it's summarized in the program so you can review. But it may aid your enjoyment if you know, especially if the otherwise terrific opening song that sets up the premise is not completely clear. (It's an original piece that substitutes for the play's opening scene.) Aside from this (and maybe some audibility and intelligibility issues on opening night), it's all good.
With roots in earlier Greek and Roman plays, The Comedy of Errors was one of Shakespeare's first comedies, and perhaps the only one that flourishes when played so broadly and at times ironically. Some scenes are missing but much of Shakespeare's language remains. Michael Fields' imaginative direction (it has to be one of his best efforts) and the skillful enthusiasm of a fully committed cast of performers provide both the sense and a style to the lines and the action.
Daniel Spencer's set is dominated by doors, which enable as well as signal a farcical treatment. There's servant-beating in the script, which is successfully treated as clown business. When Antiphola and Dromio as well as other characters are trading witticisms, they play it as vaudeville comics.
Yet for all the hilarity, the play deals with issues of identity, and it has real feeling in a surprisingly joyful and not entirely predictable ending of resurrection and reunion. This is probably the most disciplined as well as structured Dell'Arte summer production I've seen, revealing familiar skills in a different way, and new possibilities.
Schirle is outstanding as the red-headed Antiphola twins. Eldredge and Yorke are convincing twin sprites. Chase McNeill as the husband of Antiphola of Ephesus worked with such visible energy to get across one of his speeches on opening night that the audience applauded. Lynnie Horrigan plays his sister with physical and vocal clarity, becoming the sudden love interest of the visiting Antiphola. MacNeil and Horrigan gamely and gracefully create characters different from the originals, as a result of Shakespeare's Antipholus becoming Dell'Arte's Antiphola, and so they augment the scripted humor with more 2013 comic accents.
Zuzka Sabata is the blues-singing old man, and Janessa Johnsrude is the duchess on a bicycle (inspired by a certain ex-mayor of Arcata who showed up at a Farmers Market in spandex bike togs). There are other reminders of the Arcata Plaza ambience as well.
The rest of the excellent cast (often in multiple roles) are Pratik Motwani, Anna Gettles, Ruxy Cantir, Emily Newton, Meghan Frank, Moses Norton and Drew Pannebecker, with a comic cameo by Fields. Tim Gray composed the music, with songs also by Zuzka Sabata, Schirle and Lyndsey Battle, plus lyrical assists from William Shakespeare. The always excellent band is Tim Randles, Marla Joy and Mike LaBolle.
Michael Foster designed lighting, Lydia Foreman the eye-catching costumes. The Comedy of Errors plays for two more weekends in the outdoor Rooney Amphitheatre, ending July 7. It runs about two hours.
Next at the Mad River Festival: the children's noontime show, IN-Tents, on June 29 and 30, and the Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony and dinner on June 29, honoring Jane Hill. The Red Light in Blue Lake cabaret plays twice, July 5 and 6, and The Submarine Show is onstage July 11-13. Details at www.dellarte.com.