Plautus, the second century B.C. Roman playwright, delighted in puns in his native tongue. These names, however, take Latin puns to a new level. Whether it is a higher or lower level is one of the unanswered questions about A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
The musical comedy (book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbert) is loosely based on a grab bag of characters and situations lifted (and twisted) from Plautus. Furthermore, it was Stephen Sondheim's first time out as composer. He had already scored hits as a lyricist.
Forum is a farce. To set us in the right mood at Rivertown Rep's version, a Prologus (Sean Patterson) enters in front of the curtain and sings that we'll have "Comedy Tonight" -- not that we could mistake what follows for anything else. Nonetheless, the mood and style are somewhat offbeat.
Soon enough, the story begins. Senex (Roland "Butch" Caire) lives with his wife, Domina (Joanne Mehrtens) in a stately home, abutted on one side by the house of Lycus (Kyle Daigrepont), a dealer in courtesans, and on the other side, by the house of Erronius (Wayne Gonsoulin), a man whose children were stolen years ago by pirates. This arrangement is not as random as it sounds, for the various strands that connect these three dwellings become more and more tangled as the play progresses, until they form a knot positively Gordian in complexity.
Let me just pick out a few of the main themes. Hero (Richard Arnold) is the son of Senex and his virago of a spouse. He has fallen in love with Philia (Cammie West), whom he glimpses at times at a window in the house of ill fame. Pseudolus (Sean Patterson) hates being a slave. He makes a bargain with Hero. He will find a way to get the girl for his young master in return for freedom.
Philia -- conveniently for the sensibilities of any prude in the audience -- is actually a virgin. This lovely maiden-cum-courtesan returns Hero's love. Unfortunately, she has already been sold to a military officer (Michael Aaron Santos).
Meanwhile, Hysterium (Gary Rucker) is the head slave of the household. He has been left in charge during Senex and Domina's absence, so a love match between their son and a courtesan would be a disaster for him. He must prevent it.
Okay, we're off to a fine dramatic start. Everybody knows what they want, but there'll be hell to pay -- because each person's wants are in direct conflict with someone else's.
Since Forum is a musical, each new development finds its way into a tune. Furthermore, as usual in any show with lovely ladies of loose virtue, we get a tantalizing arabesque or two or three. However, since we never stray far from the scatterbrained geography of farce, we are spared the crescendos of emotion that echo through kitsch pseudo-operatic musicals. In A Funny Thing, the songs also are mostly meant to be fun.
During the Vietnam War (if I can embark on a grim analogy), there was much talk about the domino theory. Evil consequences -- meaning the loss of more countries to Communism -- would follow a defeat in Vietnam, we were told, like dominos that are lined up, so that all fall if the very first falls. As I said, it's a grim analogy, but there is a point: farce works according to the domino theory. Part of the reason that things get so funny is that they're connected by a similar, infernal logic.
Sure enough, amid all the seemingly random craziness, the writers of Forum are furtively lining up their dominos. At the climax, theses dominos (or dilemmas) all come tumbling down. In fact, the lines of dominos branch out in several directions, crisscrossing and creating quite a bedlam.
At one point, for example, the pompous centurion is lamenting his lost love, whose corpse lies before him on a bench -- except that she's not really his lost love. She's one of the slaves in drag. And she's not a corpse, either. Don't ask me to explain. It's all perfectly logical. Well, maybe not perfectly, but, it's pretty damn funny, nonetheless.
Under Gary Rucker's direction, the cast members turn in buoyant performances. Carrie Black choreographed. Lori Dewitt is musical director. Linda Fried designed the attractive costumes. Chris Adams designed the serviceable set.
In brief: this type of knock-about nuttiness that can lift your spirits.