A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Arts Review

The scene is a street in Rome. On the left sits a house of ill repute, on the right an abandoned home. At center stage stands the house of Senex and his family, with a portico and plywood columns. Across every surface is scrawled graffiti that is just barely suggestive but never really goes anywhere.

Same with the play.

Now, let's be clear: Austin Playhouse attracts one sort of demographic – an older, genteel crowd looking for laughs and a harmlessly fun evening – while Chronicle readers generally compose another. The former will enjoy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the overall strong work of the large cast. The latter might wish that the company had filled in the rest of the graffiti.

What's at issue is the choice of script and how it's staged. It's true that this is a Stephen Sondheim musical (with book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart), but it's not exactly Sweeney Todd. Forum is an earlier musical from the era of camp and silliness. The protagonist, Pseudolus (Michael Stuart), wishes he were free from his life of slavery, which, as portrayed here, is really more of an inconvenience than anything else. To that end, he devises a plan to unite his master's son with the bimbo of his dreams, a virgin whore (yup), in exchange for his freedom.

Thus ensues a farce in the classical tradition: mistaken identities, ridiculous plot twists, and lots and lots of running around from all corners. In particular, the Proteans – the ever-changing chorus; get it? – dash from exit to entrance. One moment, they play eunuchs who behave a little like Ewoks; the next, they are soldiers who could be cousins to Marvin the Martian. The three actors give themselves over to the goofiness with abandon.

The chief pleasure of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is in watching a cleansed, comedic version of what in reality is not funny at all. The ladies who play the harem of hookers are obviously sweet girls under their costumes, not hopeless tramps. Hysterium (Hans Venable), the servile head slave, doesn't mind his lifelong bondage. We the audience can play around with sex and titillation and a punishing social order, and there's no need to be rousted from your seat to go join the revolution.

As Pseudolus, Michael Stuart channels Zero Mostel: He floats from one side of the stage to the other, detached from the play and anything remotely serious in it. In fact, much of the Playhouse production echoes the 1966 film version. The costumes are colorful and the wigs obvious. The procession of prostitutes is both chaste and politically incorrect. The romance between Senex's son and the innocent hooker is played more for laughs than for passion.

That isn't to say these things can't make a good show. It's simply that this show has been done before and in wide release.

Musicals from yesteryear with yesteryear's values have been remounted to great success, but that only happens if the company develops a fresh vision. The Playhouse has chosen the safer route of sincere flattery by way of imitation.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Austin Playhouse, Stephen Sondheim, Michael Stuart, Hans Venable

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