Monday, September 17, 2018

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by Sondheim, Shevelove, & Gelbart

This was my first experience at The Ovation Repertory Theater. It is another addition to our local arts scene, and uses the building formerly occupied by Spotlight Theater, some years ago. (I think I saw King Lear and The Tempest there before we had kids.) Anyway, it’s somewhat similar to the old one, but with a rather different type of theater, focusing mostly on musicals rather than older classics. One pet peeve to get off my chest: it is NOT a “repertory” theater, as my wife pointed out. It doesn’t have multiple plays in rotation at the same time, like, say, the Utah Shakespeare Festival. But whatever, it is still enjoyable.

My wife has a rather immense knowledge of classic musicals, from the stuff in the 1930s by the Gershwins that nobody remembers, to the more edgy stuff of her childhood. On any given day, you can find her dancing around the house singing something or other.

One of her favorites is “Comedy Tonight,” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. When we saw that Ovation was doing it, we figured we had to go - and drag the kids. Yes, there is plenty of bawdy stuff in the play. Yes, my kids - the older ones at least - got the naughty jokes. We’re a weird family.

The play is intended to be a modern update of a classic Roman art form: the farces of Plautus. Writing in the Old Latin period - roughly 200 BCE - Plautus was a controversial character. In addition to satirizing society, his characters are shockingly cavalier about the gods, rather casually irreverent. They were also right on the borderline of risque, carefully toeing the line of the Hays Code of ancient Rome. Pautus used a number of stock characters, much like the later Commedia dell’arte or the Melodrama. There were the braggart soldier, the lustful old man, the young virgin, the nagging wife, the pimp, the courtesan, the humorous lower class denizens - who usually got the best puns. But Plautus’ most famous contribution to the stock character pantheon was the “clever slave,” a role which has been reprised in various forms up through the present.

Sondheim, Shevelove, and Gelbart take these stock characters and make a modern Roman farce out of them. The story is pretty Roman. But a lot of the jokes are decidedly 20th Century. Certainly, the strata of Roman society are played for modern laughs.

To give a quick summary of the plot, Pseudolus, the clever slave, wants to gain his freedom. He sees his chance when his masters, Senex (the dirty old man) and Domina (the nagging woman) leave for a vacation, with their young adult son Hero (the naive young man) in the hands of Hysterium, the seriously uptight head slave. Hero is mooning over Philia, a lovely young woman who is one of the wares at the house of Marcus Lycus, the pimp. The problem is, Philia has already been sold to Miles Gloriosus, the braggart soldier. Getting them together will require all of Pseudolus’ cleverness - particularly after Senex returns and tries to seduce Philia, Domina returns and tries to catch Senex sleeping around, Miles Gloriosus comes to claim his property, and, well, it requires mistaken and assumed identities, gender swaps, and a faked death.

The play is quite clever, particularly when played by actors with a knack for physical comedy. I particularly liked the whole conceit of “Lovely,” where Philia sings about the fact that she has been raised to have no brains, but just be beautiful. Also great was the end of the first act, with Pseudolus in deep trouble, and down to one last word. Which is, of course, “Intermission!”

The cast included some of the usual local suspects. Jason McClain starred as Pseudolus. He has been a fixture of local theater for decades - I remember back when I used to play music theater in my single days, he was the younger apprentice in Hello Dolly, among other roles. He also has been a part of our local Nutcracker performances for years. He brought a properly sarcastic and jaded vibe to the role - the slave who has seen it all, and is ready for some freedom, finally. Derreck Reed preened and flexed as Miles Gloriosus. Princess Pellett simpered and bubbled as Philia. Mason Edwards was appropriately lugubrious as Marcus Lycus. But probably the most riveting was Tyler Vernon as Hysterium. I have to hand it to him for outstanding physical acting - he was wound tighter than a juiced baseball. As perhaps the only character in the play who did not realize it was a comedy, he shook, panicked, melted down, and generally acted hysterical in both senses of that word. General props to the rest of the cast, and also to the live band (backstage) - I’m always impressed when productions can mange live music.

It was a fun production, and the kids were in stitches as well. Between our local educational establishments and professional theaters, Bakersfield really does have an admirable arts scene. I wish I had the time to go to every production. 

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