Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A tumultuous three-ring Forum
by Michael Dresdner

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Lakewood Playhouse, deftly directed by Brie Yost, is a rollicking, bawdy, musical comedy that can barely contain itself. Think Marx Brothers meets Three Stooges and you’ll have a sense of what transpires. An outstanding cast creates a three-ring-circus of singing, dancing, and lowbrow comedy peppered with puns, sight gags, and humorous anachronisms, all played out in outstanding costumes on a beautifully conceived and elaborately painted stage.

Set in 200 BCE Rome, the basic plot has young Hero (Colin Briskey) in love with a face in the window of the brothel across the courtyard. The face belongs to Philia (Gretchen Boyt), a vapid blond virgin whose only skills are seduction and obedience, and who is already sold to a soon-to-arrive soldier, a vain braggart of a captain.

When his parents leave him in the care of their aptly named slave Hysterium (Alex Smith), Hero upends things by promising freedom to his other slave, the devious Pseudolus (Christopher S. Cantrell) if he gets Philia away from brothel owner Marcus Lycus (Jeffrey Weaver). That plot device allows Cantrell to initiate a madcap parade of mayhem.

Cantrell’s Pseudolus orchestrates the show like a Roman era Jackie Gleason, a manipulative puppeteer racing from one exhaustingly convoluted song and dance filled scheme to the next. Through it all he is abetted and amplified by a delightfully funny trio of Proteans (Josh Johnson, Coleman Hagerman, Jed Slaughter) who appear regularly in various characters and costumes, singing, dancing, mugging, doing acrobatics, and generally adding another layer of distracting hilarity to the already frenetic action.

For our viewing pleasure, Pseudolus gets brothel owner Lycus to parade across the stage a bevy of varied and appropriately costumed dancing courtesans. Mute but physical, they gyrate lasciviously enough to arouse not only the rapt men, but even the fountain in the courtyard. Cantrell’s Pseudolus also manipulates the hapless, excitable, marionette-limber Smith into cross dressing, lying, and even faking death, and cons everyone in sight in every way possible.

Subtle but humorous anachronisms abound. Soldiers drink water from a plastic bottle and the captain wears a sundial wristwatch. A wizened, addled neighbor named Erronius (Martin J. Mackenzie) reappears regularly as he circles the city on foot, wheezing and humming classic theme songs from shows like Bonanza and The Adams Family.

Supporting the excellent cast is a worthy support crew. The simple, very functional set, designed by Blake York and deftly painted by a crew led by Jen Ankrum, is beautiful. Costumes are outstanding, from the variety of Roman upper class and slave outfits, through some amazing togs on the dancing courtesans, down to both humorous Protean and elegant soldier’s outfits. Lighting by Kristen Zetterstrom is suitable unobtrusive, and music is provided by a very capable quartet led by Terry O’Hara. 

I should mention that while this is a musical, its strength is more in its comedy than its songs. Don’t expect great soloists, deep emotion or cerebral repartee. This is vaudevillian slapstick at its finest, and at that, it is fine indeed.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
June 15th to July 8th
Lakewood Playhouse

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