This is the story of twins raised separately, who, when reunited — unbeknownst to each other — dissolve all ensuing situations into hysteria. No one knows which twin is which, people get blamed for things they didn’t do, impish events take place, parents are reunited against their will … oh wait, that’s Disney’s The Parent Trap.
But along that same mistaken-identities and reunited-twins mayhem theme, the Montford Park Players — North Carolina’s longest running Shakespeare festival — are currently performing Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors.
The title of the play has become a catchphrase for slapstick humor, but is the comedic romp — penned four centuries ago — the grandfather of all twin farces? Director C.J. Breland says no.
Of princes and paupers
“Shakespeare didn’t even invent it,” reveals Breland, a local actor and drama teacher at Asheville High. “[Comedy of Errors] was based on two plays by the Roman [playwright] Plautus.” Titus Maccius Plautus was crafting his dramas about 200 years before the birth of Christ — eons before Ashley and Mary-Kate came on the scene.
“Of course, [Shakespeare] added his own things,” Breland, who directs the Montford Park Players, notes. “He added the second set of servant twins.”
That’s right — double your pleasure — it’s a case of mistaken identities times two. Here’s the story: Husband and wife Aegean and Aemelia give birth to twin boys. Nearby, a woman of meager means also bears twins. Being of a generous nature, Aegean takes the twin paupers to be raised as servants for his own progeny.
Perhaps proving the theory of instant karma, the family is separated at sea when a storm cleaves their ship in two. So, in one city — Syracuse — Aegean lives with his son Antipholus of Syracuse and servant Dromio of Syracuse, while Aemelia makes do in Ephesus with her son Antipholus of Ephesus and servant Dromio of Ephesus.
This is, indeed, a family who spared their identical offspring no humiliation. As if matching clothes weren’t enough, the sets of twins received the same name.
But that’s not what the play’s about. The story takes place some 25 years after the two halves of the family are torn apart, when a chance meeting of the twins throws the town of Ephesus into chaos.
“It’s a madcap hour-and-a-half,” Breland says of the intermission-free play.
But what is it, exactly, that has compelled playwrights over the last two millennia to craft their shtick around split zygotes?
Perhaps it’s “some basic schizophrenia in human beings,” the director muses.
The answer — as far as the great Bard goes — may be more obvious. He himself reared a set of twins: Judith and Hamnet, born in 1584. It may be that a simple fascination with human nature is what made Shakespeare so accessible, and why his works are still being performed today.
Breland also credits the “broad social spectrum” that enjoyed plays in Shakespeare’s time. “He was writing for those groundlings who had little or no education, all the way to the nobility,” she explains. “You can see how he bounces back and forth between the audiences. There’s some gorgeous poetry, followed immediately with something crude.”
“I to the world am like a drop of water/ That in the ocean seeks another drop,/ Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,/ Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself:/ So I, to find a mother and a brother,/ In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself,” emotes Antipholus of Syracuse. (That’s the poetry.)
However, this twin’s brother happens to have married, and the confused wife — whose husband sometimes seems to know her and other times claims he has no spouse — adds pratfalls enough to please even Steve Urkel (not to mention his clone, Stefan Urquelle).
And there’s also the age-old war of the roses, as seen in the banter between Adriana (wife of Antipholus of Ephesus) and her sister Luciana. Complaining of her spouse’s behavior, Adriana moans, “Look, when I serve him so, he takes it ill,” to which the lovelorn Luciana answers, “O, know he is the bridle of your will.”
And then the married sister retorts: “There’s none but asses will be bridled so.”
A tale of two hats
The one thing that most twin scripts have in common is the look-alike element — to the point of film directors casting one actor (The Parent Trap again) to play both roles. But this is stage, and Breland takes liberties. “I’ve read there’s no record anywhere that Shakespeare ever had a set of twins in his troupe,” she notes. “It wasn’t important to me to have them look alike.”
Instead of spitting images, Breland’s twins are mirror images — at least in their gestures. And instead of carbon-copy features, the local Dromios sport matching hats. Never mind that, having grown up in different cities, the characters hardly called each other in the morning to coordinate outfits. “This is a farce,” the director points out. “It’s nothing if not obvious.”
The Montford Park Players present Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors through Sunday, July 31, at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater behind the Montford Community Center. Show time is 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Bring a picnic and blanket or lawn chairs. Donations are accepted. For more information, call 254-5146 or visit www.montfordparkplayers.org.