In graduate school, I spent an entire semester of theatre history studying Roman comedy, as this ancient art form continues to be seen in contemporary farce today. One of my favorite musical comedies, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, is the perfect descendent of this form, since it not only utilizes 2,000-year old comedy conventions, such as puns, mistaken identity, physical humor and absurdity, but also because its plot is taken directly from three plays written by Plautus, the Roman father of farce himself.
Forum tells the ribald story of a slave named Pseudolus who attempts to win his freedom by assisting his youthful master win the heart of the beautiful courtesan next door. Using the classical elements of farce and punctuated by fun melodies with clever lyrics, Forum is such a well-written show that even the most amateur of productions can be excellent. I have, in fact, seen Forum a number of times, ranging in scope from its Broadway revival in 1997 to a 40-seat community theatre production with virtually no budget, and thoroughly enjoyed it every time. This is why I was so excited to see Forum at The Shakespeare Theatre Company and why I was so disappointed in their production. If a community theatre of amateur actors, directors, and designers can take a nearly perfect script and present farcical magic, I expected one of the greatest theatres and directors in the DC area, combined with a cast of actors with numerous Broadway credits, to be incredible. And it wasn’t.
The problem, for me, is that the production wasn’t funny. A good friend of mine, a professional clown, incidentally, came to the show with me. She was looking forward to seeing the show because she had heard it was hysterical and full of the types of antics, jokes, and gags that are a staple in her profession. I, too, had raved to her about how amusing the show was and how I considered it to be one of the most perfectly written farces because the humor is so inherent in the script. Without need to be played up or explained to the audience, the humor of Forum is found through the same simplicity and time-honored jokes that clowns have been using for centuries, which is one of the reasons I thought my clown friend would enjoy Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production so much. As the show progressed, however, I heard nary a peal of laughter emanating from her, and was not surprised when she turned to me at intermission and said “I know you love this show and all, but I’m thinking your definition of funny must be different than mine, because this isn’t funny.”
In such a delightful comedy such as Forum, no embellishment is needed to do the show justice. By simply sticking to the script, as I have seen in the previous productions, the result can be wonderfully satisfying amusement. And that may have been the case with this production were it not for what I perceive as confused direction. It seemed to me like director Alan Paul felt the need to add in bits or jokes that were intended to be funny but instead, just muddled the original script and, in some cases, messed up the gag entirely.
For example, in the opening number, as Pseudolus is setting the scene and presenting the various characters in the show, he introduces the audience to the house of Eronius, an old man in search of his children who were stolen in infancy by pirates. There was, then, a re-enactment of the fabled baby heist that turned into a running joke involving a series of baby dolls that resurfaced a number of times throughout the show. This re-enactment, which is not scripted, ended up being several minutes long in order to introduce the baby doll gag. Its lengthy setup, however, meant that when Pseudolus returned to the next scripted line– about the neighborhood brothel, “for those of you who have no interest in pirates”—it wasn’t funny because the pirates had been off stage for several minutes and the audience didn’t make the connection. In fact, many of the moments in the show that could have been hysterical ended up losing steam because the actors had been given some other gag or bit and the original text was lost to the audience.
In addition, many of the jokes felt too contrived, with lines that were supposed to appear to be ‘off the cuff’ or improvised sounding too rehearsed. At times, Pseudolus, played by Broadway veteran Bruce Dow, who also serves as the show’s narrator, would interact with the audience, speaking directly to them. While I loved this added convention to the script because it allowed Dow the opportunity to deviate from what was written to engage with the live audience, it felt like these deviations were actually scripted and directed and therefore, lost the pleasure of humorous momentary discovery. It seemed like the lines were being said for the sake of being said, not because they were funny in that moment, but because he had been directed to say them.
There were too many moments in the show, in fact, that felt too directed, where the humor which could have evolved naturally from the actors and the script was oversaturated by unnecessary bits. These may have been meant to punctuate the humor, but only served to kill the original intent of the joke. Unfortunately for the actors, this meant that most of their performances suffered from this directorial overkill and became too overblown, instead of keeping their performances rooted in the original text and simple, effective conventions of Roman comedy.
Although this seemed to be a problem overall, there were a few exceptions. Lora Lee Gayer, as Philia, the courtesan love of the young Hero (played by Nick Verina), presented a fresh take on her character, playing Philia’s dim-witted nature very straight and subdued, rather than hyped up and bimbo-like, and it was brilliant. Likewise, Edward Watts, as the overblown warrior Miles Gloriosus, didn’t allow himself to become too overblown and remained highly amusing. There were actually many highly amusing moments in the show and scenes and songs that were wonderful and I thoroughly enjoyed those flashes of witty and amusing comedy, which was why I was so disappointed to have them so overshadowed by moments that weren’t.
Forum is funny. But not because the director tells me it’s funny. It’s funny because it’s an extremely well-written farce that doesn’t need a lot of embellishment and where the text speaks for itself. For me, the text in this production was lost and the humor rarely found.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum performs now through January 5, 2014 at The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, located at 610 F St NW, Washington DC 20004. Tickets $40-$110. For more information, call 202-547-1122.