Arts & Culture

‘Comedy Tonight’: Musical transports crowds to Rome

Courtesans, slaves, plebeians sing, dance to Sondheim in night of sexual debauchery

By
Staff Writer
Friday, April 10, 2015

Light, punny and packed with satire, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” presented by Brown University Gilbert and Sullivan is sure to send audience members home chuckling. Directed by Paul Martino ’17, the musical features a comically absurd plot, a lively set and talented actors.

Set in ancient Rome, the musical displays distinct aspects of contemporary humor, as well as a number of pop culture references. The director’s inspiration for the adapted play — with the music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the script by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart — came from a form of theater known as “commedia dell’arte,” which loosely translates to “the comedy of craft,” Martino said. The improvisation of this form of theater “allows for such a huge diversity of ideas, which let the characters evolve both verbally and physically,” said Assistant Director Ani Mack ’17. 

The play opens with a lively song, “Comedy Tonight,” performed by the entire cast. The audience is welcomed by the cacophonous, yet strangely appealing, clash of bright and gaudy costumes and set pieces, made to depict a three-house neighborhood in ancient Rome. The rampant use of slapstick humor throughout the opening immediately makes it clear that the audience is in for two hours of vaudeville-reminiscent comedy.

The musical tells the story of Pseudolus, a slave plotting to gain her freedom by helping her master, Hero, win the hand of Philia, a courtesan in the House of Marcus Lycus. But Pseudolus is hindered from achieving her goal by a streak of comical obstacles. In the events that follow, audience members are greeted by a number of elements characteristic of plays of this type: farces, puns, heavy satire and mistaken identities. They also encounter eclectic characters such as Hysterium, the head slave who is under strict orders from Hero’s parents to “keep (Hero) away from the other sex,” and Miles Gloriosus, a captain to whom Philia is already betrothed. The hilarity of the play peaks during the final scene, in which Pseudolus’ plan is about to fall apart at the seams and the disguised characters are revealed.

Anna Stacy ’17, who plays Pseudolus, gives an evocative performance throughout the musical and steals the show with her nuanced facial expressions and unbounded energy. Ross Hegtvedt ’15 also stands out as Hysterium by drawing out the high-strung and distressed personality of the character.

The directors add a twist to the musical by casting a woman as Pseudolus, who was originally written as a man, and by featuring one of Marcus Lycus’ courtesans as a drag queen. In doing so, they deftly bring to the audience’s attention problematic issues like female objectification and homophobia, which were rampant in many works produced in the mid-20th century.

“We chose the show knowing that it would be difficult to present in this environment,” said Martino, “but I think we did a good job of modernizing it and making it more ‘Brown,’” he added. 

The musical also employs tasteful exaggeration in the dialogue, set pieces and costumes alluding to such problematic issues: The house of Marcus Lycus includes a “peephole” through which the neighbors sneak glimpses of the courtesans, and Marcus Lycus, played by Advik Iyer Guha ’16, swaggers through the set with a Hugh Hefner-like silk robe and walking stick, speaking with a hilarious drawl throughout the musical.

The orchestra, directed by Jeff Ball ’17, plays cheery tunes that add an aspect of playfulness to the entire musical and emphasize the ridiculousness of the chaotic final scene. But the musicians often lag behind the actors, especially during the faster songs in the production.

“I hope the audience walks away from the musical feeling completely cathartic,” Martino said, adding that he also wants the audience to realize how different comedy in the mid-20th century was. “Satire is so powerful. It takes horrible beliefs that people have and makes them funny. But it has that double-edged sword in that you feel motivated to change that,” Mack said.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way the Forum” opens tonight in Alumnae Hall Auditorium at 8 p.m. Performances are scheduled for Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Admission is free.

  • Martin Murphy

    It’s funny that someone felt that this particular show needed to be made more “Brown”. The co-author of the script – Burt Shevelove ’37 – co-founded Brownbrokers in 1935.

    Martin Murphy ’73