By Ruth Ross
Classical Greek dramatists did it; the Roman writers did it; and the great Elizabethan playwrights did it. What "it" means is that male actors played all the roles—even the female parts—in a tragedy or comedy. Thus, the innovation of an all-male cast in Two River Theater's robustly ribald romp of a production, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, is both traditional and modern at the same time and adds a bit of campiness entirely appropriate for Stephen Sondheim's transformation of a 2000-year-old plot for the enjoyment of an early 21st century audience. [Top: Christopher Fitzgerald (in red, fifth from left) as Pseudolus and the company]
The plot of A Funny Thing is straightforward: If he can help his young master Hero win the girl he's enamored of, the cunning slave Pseudolus will be granted his freedom. In true comedic form, farcical complications arise and threaten to derail the path to the true love (and freedom). Unfortunately, the girl, Philia, is a courtesan (read: prostitute) in the neighboring House of Lycus, and Hero is the son of a respected Roman citizen, Senex. To make matters worse, Philia has been purchased by a bloviating Roman soldier named Miles Gloriosus, and the contract cannot be broken. Mistaken identities, disguises, slamming doors, and frantic running to and fro result in madcap mayhem and much merriment—the latter on the audience's part.
Written by Bert Shevelove, Larry Gelbart and Stephen Sondheim in 1962, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is best remembered for its star, the great Zero Mostel, as the slave Pseudolus. At Two River, director Jessica Stone has chosen an actor small in stature but big of heart and talent. Christopher Fitzgerald (Right, center, with Lycus and the Gemini) sings very well, dances with energy, mugs with ferocity and generally fills the entire stage with the force of his personality whenever he's onstage—which is most of the time. His apot-on comedic timing is perfect for the physical comedy, as are his rubber joints and expressive face. He's ludicrous and endearing, and we root for him to achieve his desired goal.
Kevin Isola (left, with David Turner as Philia) is terrific as henpecked, randy, yet impotent Senex, cowering in fear of his imposing wife Dominia, a tall and very imperious Eddie Cooper. Isola is hilarious as he contemplates an assignation with Philia as Pseudolus attempts to protect his master and achieve his goal of freedom. And Michael Urie brings the house down with his antics as Hysterium, appointed slave-in-chief when Senex and Dominia are out of town. A walking nervous breakdown, his antics are true to his name, and he is especially hilarious when he impersonates a dead Philia. This triumvirate of comedic actors forms the heart of the play and keeps it beating at a high pulse rate throughout the entire two-plus hours of running time.
In supporting roles, Bobby Conte Thornton is a winning Hero, a callow youth just learning about love; David Turner makes a fetching, if very dim, Philia; and David Josefsberg is a smarmy Lycus, owner of the house of ill repute that supplies courtesans to anyone who can pay. As Erronius, a daft Roman citizen (and neighbor to Senex) who has been searching for his children stolen long ago by pirates, Tom Deckman wanders in and out of the action, bringing down the house each time he appears. Graham Rowat (above, center, with the courtesans) struts the stage as the arrogant, self-infatuated Miles Gloriosus, true to his name—if only in his own mind. All the actors play various roles—some prominent, others not—in a true definition of the term ensemble.
Director Stone's firm directorial hand is evident in maintaining the frantic pace without letting it devolve into confusion. Best of all, she fills the action with unexpected comic devices, much to the delight of the audience, which laughed uproariously on opening night. Denis Jones provides choreography that moves the cast around the stage quite nimbly and fluidly, adding some comic shtick too. [Above, L-R: David Josefsberg (Marcus Lycus), Michael Urie (Hysterium), Christopher Fitzgerald (Pseudolus), and Kevin Isola (Senex)]
Production values are equally top-notch. This mayhem unfolds on a magnificent set (top image) designed by Alexander Dodge to represent three multi-storied mansions on a Roman street, complete with varicolored marble columns, frescos and doors to slam. And Clint Ramos's costumes further enhance the experience; they are many-colored, belying our usual impressions of Romans dressed in white togas! As an added artistic fillip, Aaron Rhyne brings 21st century technology to ancient Rome with a nifty projection that sets the scene even before the huge scarlet curtain rises! And Gary Adler's musical direction of a hidden orchestra accompanies the actors without overwhelming their voices. (Above: Fitzgerald and Urie)
There may be "something familiar, something peculiar" onstage at Two River Theater in Red Bank, but to be sure, there is plenty of "comedy tonight." In view of the horrific events in Paris and Mali, it's good to be able to smile, if only for a little over two hours. This production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—Two Rivers' biggest production yet—deserves to be called a tour de force in the true sense of the expression: an impressive performance or achievement accomplished or managed with great skill. It is musical theater at its best, and you won't want to miss it.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum will be performed at the Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, through December 13. For information and tickets, call the box office at 732.345.1400 or visit www.TwoRiverTheater.org online. At this time of year, it is the perfect holiday gift, but leave the little ones at home!
Photos by T. Charles Erickson