A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Jungle Theater

Frantic action and delightful songs make up for flat characters

One of the hallmarks of good farce is never letting the audience pause for breath, because if they did, they would realize that all the business with slamming doors and men dressed as women doesn't make a lick of sense.

So I'm pleased to report that the Jungle's production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum hits the ground running and doesn't let up for a second during a gloriously overstuffed two and a half hours. Sure, the characters have as much depth as Bain Boehlke's clever, pop-up-book-style set, but the mixture of comedy, frantic action, and Stephen Sondheim's delightful and often naughty songs more than make up for it.

Basing Forum on the ancient Roman plays of Plautus, book writers Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart weave together several stories set over one rather frantic day in Rome. At the center is Pseudolus, a slave who dreams of his freedom. He sees his chance through the love-gooey eyes of the young master, Hero, who has fallen hard for Philia, a beautiful courtesan who is achingly close in the house of ill repute next door.

A farce to be reckoned with: Josiah Gulden, Jon Whittier, Christopher Teipner, and Richard Ooms
Michal Daniel
A farce to be reckoned with: Josiah Gulden, Jon Whittier, Christopher Teipner, and Richard Ooms

There are complications to the love, of course. Philia has been sold to a brash soldier, Miles Gloriosus; the master and the mistress of the house make unexpected returns; there's the matter of the twins from the third house on the block who were taken by pirates as infants; and...well, you get the idea. All these complications provide jumping-off points for the humor, and for the songs.

Forum easily could have been bogged down by adding a full complement of songs, but we're in good hands here. Besides being packed with Sondheim's typically clever melodies and lyrics, the tunes work perfectly within the show, making comments on the action, developing (as much as there is here) characters, and underscoring the humor.

Director John Command makes the most of his Jungle debut, showing the flair that fueled his most recent success at the Bloomington Civic Theatre. Even with an overstuffed stage (when all 20 performers line up, the ones on the end are halfway in the wings) the action never feels cluttered. Instead, all the bodies allow for inventive, invigorating choreography and provide plenty of extra layers for the humor.

All of this gives the cast a solid runway for their performances to take off. They're led by Christopher Teipner as Pseudolus, who has the comic timing and solid voice that are essential for the role. Teipner draws us into the musical's madness, and his easygoing presence tells the audience that we should relax and enjoy ourselves. The rest of the company does equally solid work: fresh-faced Eric Heimsoth as Hero, Jon Whittier as crazed head slave Hysterium, Josiah Gulden as porn-'stached Roman pimp Lycus, and Claudia Wilkens as Domina, the true head of the household.

Two performers fight to steal the show. In a role he seems to have been born to play, Bradley Greenwald struts into the action at the end of the first act as Miles Gloriosus (in fact, if a voice could strut, Greenwald's would be like John Travolta's walk at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever). Richard Ooms has brought his unique style to many Twin Cities theaters in the last three decades, but the sight of him romping around the stage in "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" is not to be missed. That song, with its multiple fake endings and rather antiquated worldview, can be quite a slog, but each of the fake endings here just means another delightful verse and chorus are around the corner.

And you can't forget the design. I've already mentioned Boehlke's set, but Kathy Kohl's costumes stand out as well, mixing our perceptions of Roman-era clothes with modern touches, embodied by the sundial wristwatch worn by Pseudolus. It's something Fred Flintstone would have worn, and it's absolutely, brilliantly stupid.

Forum is 50 years old (and the source material is more than 2,000), so the views on relationships and gender are, shall we say, a bit out of step with modern society (there's a lot of leering going on, especially where the House of Lycus is involved). That is tempered by a delightful production that never takes itself seriously and by the simple fact that no one really comes off as a fully fleshed-out character. Take Forum for what it is—a broad comic romp—and it will be fun from end to end.

 
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