All roads lead to Rome, but only one will take you to eunuch women, fake lepers and sneezing corpses.
In a thoroughly entertaining production directed by Erin Cawley ’08, Stephen Sondheim’s musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” inspired by the farces of the Roman playwright Plautus, is pure entertainment from beginning to end.
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The plot focuses on the story of Pseudolus (Kaley Sullivan ’10), a slave who will stop at nothing in order to win his freedom. At the beginning of the musical, he strikes a deal with Hero (Julian Malinak ’10), his young master. If Pseudolus helps Hero seduce a virgin courtesan named Philia (Steph Chan ’09), he will no longer be a slave. The courtesan, however, has been bought by captain Miles Gloriosus (James Schulte ’07), who will arrive that very day to claim his prize, so Pseudolus has to come up with a way to get the new couple away from town before it’s too late. As soon as he sets his plan in motion, mistaken identities, unlucky coincidences and unfortunate misunderstandings ensure that everything in this pun-filled farce goes completely wrong in incredibly funny ways.
The musical aims to please, and manages to do so by being consistently light-hearted, witty and even downright outrageous, as when Hero’s mother Domina (Lexi Newman ’07) informs the captain (who at the time is under the impression that she is a courtesan) that one time she entertained 200 officers … by herself. And that is neither the most ridiculous nor the most entertaining line in the production.
By the time a blind man, completely confused as to his family situation, exclaims, “My daughter is a eunuch?!” in utter disbelief, the production has reached a near-hysterical level. It only gets better as the ending nears, especially in the delightfully chaotic climactic scene in which everyone is chasing after somebody, people are constantly mistaken for other people, and three women walk around in absolutely identical attire — though one of them is actually a man.
Even though the production owes a lot to its engaging and hilarious script, the acting, for the most part, is also up to good comedy standards. Sullivan’s spirited and energetic performance as Pseudolus becomes the heart of the play. Her body language and versatile facial expressions absorb the viewer’s attention. Newman’s portrayal of the bossy, bitchy and loud Domina, who has driven her husband Senex crazy with her constant demands, is so enjoyable that it’s a pity her character doesn’t get more time on stage. The sight of her shouting her husband’s name in a high-pitched voice makes it clear to the audience why he, upon hearing that his son might be getting married, solemnly proclaims, “My heart bleeds for you.” The husband himself, played by Dan King ’10, is refreshingly lecherous, amusingly awkward and tragically tormented by married life.
The overall comedic effect is enhanced by the ingenious costumes. They are as colorful, ridiculous and flashy as the dress code of a farce dictates. Purple, white, gold, red, brown — they have it all, and in combinations Russell Crowe wouldn’t be caught tragically perishing in. Robes and togas are mixed in with random modern articles of clothing. All the courtesans are dressed in completely un-Roman clothing, in contrast to the other characters, who wear shiny, eye-catching imitations of period attire. The captain’s costume is particularly flamboyant and just about as fake, nicely matching his ungrounded and yet humongous self-confidence. Thus, even if a particular line isn’t especially good, chances are whoever delivered it is wearing something so completely outrageous that you’re amused just the same.
Even with a certain base level of hilarity, the play is a little slow in progressing from amusing to funny to, finally, completely hilarious. The singing is also a little uneven; the production would be greatly improved if most of the cast could sing as well as it acts.
Even so, “Funny Thing” is worth seeing — for the laughs, and for great costume ideas for the next frat party.