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Gambit Weekly Circus Comicus

By Dalt Wonk

JULY 20, 1998:  Theatrical companies are occasionally tempted to try their hands at one of the Greek tragedies (a worthy, though perilous enterprise), but almost no one in this century has shown any interest in mounting the comedies of ancient Rome.

Because of this general neglect, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum still seems like an excursion to a fresh and exotic realm more than 40 years after its initial outing.

To begin with, there is that odd, burley show cliche woven into the title: a clarion blast of coarse nonsense that dissipates all fears of academic timidity or lofty cultural pretensions. Plautus and the other comic playwrights of imperial Rome meant the spectators to enjoy themselves. Laughter was its own justification, their one true goal and the only guarantee of their livelihood.

Although it seems these writers have vanished utterly from the stage, they have in fact infiltrated the canon subtly. Their anarchic spirit comes through in comedies by Shakespeare, Moliere and others who studied them closely and adapted plots, gags and characters wholesale from the ancient texts.

Adaptation is the operative word here, for comedy must live in the moment, easily and naturally. To create Forum, Larry Gelbart, Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove culled from the plays of Plautus a potpourri of comic themes and wove them together into a sort of abridgment of his particular brand of buffoonery. They seem to have been especially in tune with a zaniness in Plautus that allowed him to build complex dilemmas and puncture their reality at will for whatever momentary silliness will get a laugh.

For instance, in an undoubtedly new but perfectly Plautus-like moment, the "Braggart Soldier," Miles Gloriosus, comes out of a Roman patrician's home (which he has been gulled into thinking is a whorehouse) in order to mourn over the body of his mail-order bride (actually a live male slave impersonating the "deceased" bride, who, in fact, is still alive).

After making some typically vain pronouncement, Miles says -- while sweeping his face over the supine form -- "For so long, I have smelled the sweet essence of victory, now I must smell defeat." His nose at this moment is resting precisely over "de feet." Pure silliness. But hilarious. You almost hear a voice adding, "And don't forget, tell 'em Groucho sent you."

The current incarnation of Forum, playing at Carlone's Dinner Theatre under the direction of Sonny Borey and Derek Franklin, is a well-cast and entertaining affair. Backstage, the usual suspects have given their usual exemplary contributions: Debbie Simeon for costumes, Karen Hebert for choreography and Franklin for musical direction. The set is by Allen Rusnick and Paul Gulotta.

The central character in the play is Pseudolus, a slave of many wiles who tries to win his freedom by helping his master get the courtesan he has fallen in love with. Marc Belloni throws himself into this demanding role with energy and intelligence. A greater sense of "interiorization" (as odd as that may sound when discussing a buffoon) might have helped ground the character's frantic machinations. But Belloni's zest has sufficient voltage to keep the play on course.

Thomas J. Spitzfaden is amusing as the lecherous old father-figure, Senex, while Jenny Richardson gives us a thoroughly delightful upperclass harridan of Margaret Dumont-esque stature (appropriately fitted out in her solid brass bustier).

Brian Rosenberg creates a credible naive young hero, and Sarah McMahon is charming as his irresistible dim bulb of desire. As Miles Gloriosus, a role that easily could become grating, Sean Richmond achieves the right mixture of pomp and absurdity.

Lycus, a buyer and seller of courtesans, and Hysterium, chief slave and steward, are effectively played by Adam "Louie" Breaux and Jonathan Drury. While Preston Meche, Clayton Mazoue and James R. St. Juniors Jr. are "the Proteans," or all purpose supernumeraries.

But how can one list the credits without pausing to reflect on the infinite charms of those voluptuous votaries of Venus, the courtesans of ancient Rome: Tintinabula, Panacea, the Geminae, Vibrata and Gynasia (Carrie Daigle, Amanda Berg, Meghan Gibbens, Jessica Carvin, Brandi Coleman and Brooke Simeon).

Forum is a musical that's more about fun than music. You're more likely to come out of the theater repeating the jokes than humming the tunes. And in many ways, it's the perfect fare for a dinner theater. After all, remember Caesar's recipe for success: "Give the people bread and circuses."

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