There are certain things you expect from a Shakespearean comedy: mistaken identity, jokes involving bodily humor and lover triangles galore.
American Shakespeare Center (ASC)’s traveling production of “The Comedy of Errors,” which comes to the Academy Center of the Arts for a single performance on Friday, brings all that and more in a small, action-packed package.
“‘Comedy of Errors’ is Shakespeare’s shortest show,” says Geoff Kershner, the Academy’s executive director. “It’s quick, fast-paced and a lot of fun.”
To get you in the laughing mood, we exhaustedly espouse our newest Shakespeare cheat sheet, “The Comedy of Errors: The plot, the peeps, the point.”
The plot in exactly 60 words:
Two sets of identical twins are separated during infancy due to tragic misfortune*.
When the twins — who have the exact same names — are all suddenly in the city of Ephesus, a series of mishaps occur leading to cases of mistaken identity, inadvertent infidelity, wrongful imprisonment and general mayhem.
Everyone is reunited and happy in the end. Because it’s a comedy.
The main players:
+ Antipholus of Syracuse (we’ll call him Antipholus S. for short): Twin brother to Antipholus E. who leaves home in search of his lost sibling. He’s also on a spiritual search, though he doesn’t know it.
+ Antipholus of Ephesus (Antipholus E. for short): Twin brother to Antipholus S. who has built a life for himself in Ephesus and become a wealthy merchant.
It gets complicated when his brother is mistaken for him, leading to him getting kicked out of his house and even arrested.
Confused yet? Just wait.
+ Dromio of Syracuse (Dromio S. for short) and Dromio of Ephesus (Dromio E. for short): The other set of twins, who were born to a poor mother and sold to Egeon as servants to his newborn sons.
The not-so-main but still important players:
+ Egeon: A merchant from Syracuse, who is searching for Antipholus S. (he’s already given up on ever finding Antipholus E.).
While he only appears in the first and last acts, his character is important to framing the entire play.
+ Adriana: Antipholus E.’s wife, who spends much of the play worrying her husband has been unfaithful and making observations about women’s roles in the world. She also mistakes her husband’s brother for him, so there’s that.
+ Luciana: Adriana’s unmarried sister and the love interest of Antipholus S. Things get tricky when Antipholus S. (who she believes is her brother-in-law Antipholous E.) proposes marriage.
+ Abbess: The long-lost wife of Egeon and the mother of the Antipholus twins. Convenient right?
*So about that misfortune:
“The Comedy of Errors” relies on a pretty hefty backstory (which Egeon explains in the opening scene) to set up the action of the play.
Here’s the gist.
Egeon of Syracuse and his wife are spending time abroad when she gives birth to twin boys.
In the same inn, another mother gives birth to twin boys and sells them to Eegon to be servants to his newborns. Nice parenting.
On their way home, a terrible storm overtakes the ship Eegon and his family are on.
Eegon, who is looking after one of the boys and one of the servants, and his wife, who is doing the same with the other two children, are separated when the ship is destroyed.
In anguish for his family, Eegon names his son and the servant after their lost siblings. Because that makes sense.
+ I know you are but who am I? When you have a play with two sets of twins who keep getting confused for each other, it’s almost a no-brainer that identity is going to be a theme.
But the theme actually goes much deeper as the characters question who they are and their roles their marriages, their families and even in society.
+ What do I owe you? Like identity, debt is a theme that appears in almost every scene of the play, both physically and metaphorically.
Characters get imprisoned for owing money and try to pay off debts. Others try to decide what they owe their loved ones, whether it’s faithfulness in marriage or payback for perceived slights.
+ One is the loneliest number. As chaos reigns throughout the play, almost all the characters find themselves isolated.
But, in the end they each find a sense of belonging, whether it’s in their reunited families, in relationships or even within their own understanding of themselves.
Just goes to show you, some feeling are universal.
Did you know?
+ “The Comedy of Errors” is actually Shakespeare’s shortest play with 1,780-something lines.
That might seem like a lot, but to put that in perspective, the character of Hamlet has a little more than 1,400 lines he alone recites in “Hamlet”; the play itself has more than 4,000 lines.
+ Shakespeare borrowed the plot from Roman playwright Plautus’ comedies. It’s therefore rather fitting that “The Comedy of Errors” has been adapted many times.
There’s Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s 1938 musical “The Boys of Syracuse,” 1988 film “Big Business,” starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin (who each play two roles), and an award-winning theatrical hip-hop piece “The Bomb-itty of Errors.”
It’s even made it to Bollywood.
+ In addition to stealing borrowing from the Romans, Shakespeare makes use of the Greek theater tradition of classical unities.
Created by Aristotle, the concept basically means that the play should have one cohesive story with minimal side plots (unity of action).
That plot must occur in a single geographic location (unity of place) and all the action in the play must occur within a 24-hour time period (unity of time).
Doesn’t that sound much easier to follow?