There are these identical twins who are separated at birth . . . .
The estranged brothers end up crossing paths as adults and are constantly mistaken for each other.
Much mayhem ensues — leading to great hilarity and (hopefully) wild peels of audience laughter.
Similar mixed-up identity plots have spun down through the centuries, fuelling story lines for such classic TV sitcoms as Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched. But it was actually Shakespeare who broadly popularized the standard farcical concept in The Comedy of Errors.
And even Shakespeare’s version wasn’t the first.
Jeff Page, who’s guest directing The Comedy of Errors for the Red Deer College Theatre Studies, believes the mixed-up twins device probably originated from those classical-era cut-ups — the Romans.
It isn’t surprising that the Shakespearean farce that opens on Thursday at RDC’s Studio A, can still crack them up after all these centuries, said Page. He has an explanation: The audience watching The Comedy of Errors, like viewers of those Candid Camera-type prank shows, is in on the joke.
They know more than the characters on stage, said Page, “and we enjoy watching their misfortune. … The fun is that while we know what’s going on, we don’t know how all of this is going to resolve.”
The Comedy of Errors production, staged by second-year students, starts off with a lot at stake: The merchant Egeon, of Syracuse, is arrested for being in the rival warring city of Ephesus. The punishment is death, but the humane Duke of Ephesus orders him to pay a large fine instead after being moved by Egeon’s tragic tale.
The Duke hears that years ago, Egeon’s wife gave birth to twin sons. Egeon also purchased, as servants to his boys, the twin sons of a local slave woman.
Both sets of twins were on a sea voyage with the merchant and his wife, Emilia, when a storm tore the ship apart. Only one of his sons and one of the slave infants ended up on dry land with Egeon.
His other infant son and slave were with his wife, apparently carried away on another floating section of the broken ship.
The son that Egeon raised, Antipholus of Syracuse, decided upon reaching adulthood to set out on a voyage, along with his now grown slave Dromio, to locate his long lost brother, as well as their missing mother and Dromio’s brother.
Egeon told the Duke he hasn’t seen Antipholus since he left on the journey five years ago, so he decided to travel to the forbidden city of Ephesus in search of his son.
Now that the foundation of the story is laid, it’s easy to anticipate what happens next, when Antipholus of Syracuse unwittingly crosses paths with the family of his estranged twin brother (who’s curiously also called Antipholus — of Ephesus).
The mistaken identity plot eventually involves a fiercely jealous wife, her attractive unmarried sister, an exorcist, a courtesan and an abbess of a nunnery.
Page admitted that all the comic hijinks are easier to figure out when they unfold on stage than when explained in print, so he hopes Central Albertans will come out to see the The Comedy of Errors.
Some things audience members will not be exposed to is unnecessary scenes that bog down the action, and antiquated speeches with expressions that make no sense to the modern ear. Page said he’s not a purist when it comes to staging Shakespeare — the action will move along quickly, and the play will take place in the Mad Men era of the early 1960s.
He explained that he wanted a time period when women were getting tired of being treated like second-class citizens. Also, he said he needed the plot to unfold in the newspaper era, since there are a lot of references to slaves being beaten in the play, and Page loves the sound of a rolled-up newspaper smacking someone over the head.
“Whacking people with newspapers makes a lot of noise and doesn’t hurt too much,” he added, so this automatically lends itself to broad comedy.