Sunday, May 12, 2013

Forum Is Physical Comedy Gold

By James E. Trainor III
Photos by Bob Goodfellow

The cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Coralville - A beloved (if naughty) modern classic, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum does indeed have "something for everyone:" bawdy comedy, shameless buffoonery, conniving slaves, cowardly pimps, beautiful dancers, clever songs, and a nonstop stream of jokes. City Circle's production uses a lovely set with colorful costumes, excellent lighting, and some truly wonderful acting from a great cast directed by Patrick Du Laney. As the opening number tells us, there's nothing serious or somber to be had from Forum, but that doesn't mean it's done without care and precision. Du Laney's cast takes comedy seriously, and a number of rather complicated sequences are done with a great deal of skill and energy, to hilarious results.

The musical, by Steven Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart, takes the Roman farces of Plautus for its source material. At the beginning we are introduced to the householders of the three houses onstage: the squabbling middle-aged couple, Senex and Domina (Steve Rosse and Robyn Calhoun); the confused old man, Erronius (Kevin Burford), who is searching for his lost children, and Marcus Lycus (Luis A. Sierra), who is master of whorehouse. The set, by Shelly Ford, is simple and very effective; there are lots of entrances and exits, to allow for the classic farce trope of running in and out of doors, and there is plenty of room downstage for the bulk of the action. The lights, by Drew Bielinski, work well with the set, allowing for some great visual gags, as well as an appropriate tone for every moment. The way the colors play with that of the set and costumes (by Jean Grewe) shows particular care and forethought.

The main plot revolves around Pseudolus (Christopher Carpenter), a clever slave, who is trying to get his master's son Hero (Benjamin Alley), to allow him to buy his freedom. As luck would have it, Pseudolus has something he can offer Hero: the young man is in love, and he needs his help to win the heart of Philia (Francesca Lubecki-Wilde), a beautiful (if utterly dim-witted) prostitute of Marcus Lycus' house. Of course, it can't be as simple as getting the two lovebirds together, the moral yet moronic Philia refuses to break her contract with Miles Gloriosus (Adam Kopfman), the braggart soldier who has paid dearly for her virgin flesh. So Pseudolus, with the help of fellow slave Hysterium (Elijah Jones), must plot, scheme, lie, and connive his way through the play, which leads to a number of outrageous circumstances.

Though Carpenter seems a bit low-energy during the opening number, things pick up as the plot starts. Carpenter is a great actor, and he definitely has what it takes to play the crafty Pseudolus. He's got great comic timing, he's very likable, and his relaxed cynical wisdom plays particularly well against Jones' fussy and moralizing Hysterium. Jones himself is simply a riot; when he's onstage, it's a whole other level of comedy. He has an excellent sense of physical comedy and a seemingly endless inventory of comic expressions. Much of the fun of the play is watching these two try to pull off increasingly improbable ploys over the rest of the characters.

Benjamin Alley as Hero, Francesca Lubecki-Wilde as Philia
The young lovers are funny and charming. Alley is sweet, sings well, and is well-paired with both Lubecki-Wilde and Rosse. Lubecki-Wilde is another very skilled comedian; her awkward vocal patterns and precise physical work create a sickly-sweet Philia, beautiful but bumbling, and it's fun to watch her stagger around the stage with her clueless smile. Lubecki-Wilde has a wonderful voice as well, so her songs are particularly delightful.

The entire cast of Forum is excellent -- everyone's focused and engaged with lots of energy and volume -- but a few others deserve special mention. Rosse's Senex is particularly effective -- he has an excellent dry wit and good comic timing -- and he plays very well against Calhoun's Domina. Calhoun is well-cast as Domina; her characterizations are just exaggerated enough and her "That Dirty Old Man" has some of the funniest moments of the show. Marek Muller's Gymnasia, a wild and kinky prostitute, is hilarious -- all the prostitutes are great dancers, but Muller's outrageous movements and nearly deranged facial expressions brings out the over-the-top comedy of Forum quite well. The Proteans (Per Wiger, Tempest Wisdom, and Joel Collins), are a great comic team -- they fill in a number of roles throughout the show, always with fun characterizations and some wonderfully executed physical comedy. Adam Kopfman is a hoot as Miles Gloriosus, as he struts and brags around the stage, not to be outdone by his rather scandalous but quite funny costume.

Luis A. Sierra as Marcus Lycus, Elijah Jones as Hysterium,
Steve Rosse as Senex, Christopher Carpenter as Pseudolus
Finally, Patrick Du Laney's direction brings this all together in a fabulous way. If you look at all the moments throughout the show that require careful timing, the sheer number of entrances and exits, and all the transitions where any number of things might go wrong, it's not a stretch to say that it's harder to direct that some of the highest tragedy. Du Laney takes his performers' individual energy and draws it together to create a charming ensemble piece, and the frenetic pace and non-stop visual gags in this production of Forum highlight his experience and intuition.

You should go see this show. You probably shouldn't bring your kids, as it gets pretty racy (use discretion there), but you should go see this show. Good music, great lyrics, well acted, superbly directed, beautifully designed. Save tragedy for tomorrow - go see a comedy tonight!

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum plays through May 19 at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. More info here.

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