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Thursday Theatre Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

While waiting for Hart House Theatre's production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to begin, I encountered one of the oddest sentences I have ever read in a program:

"This is one of the funniest and most-produced musicals of all time, mostly due to the fact that every person can give their own take on the characters they play- there are really no templates as the characters are all based on stock characters."

Lesson number one, apparently. I always thought stock characters were templates. But before I could ponder this point further, the lights dimmed and my strange education continued.

Lesson number two: it is very hard to teach an old play new tricks. A Funny Thing Happened tells the story of Pseudolus, a wacky Roman slave trying to win his freedom by hooking his love-struck master up with a virginal courtesan. It premiered on Broadway in 1962, and ran for a staggering 964 performances. Not surprising then that the comedy comes across as a little stale. We've heard these jokes before, and can see them coming about ten minutes in advance. The cast seemed to sense the dated nature of their material, and responded by packing their performances with modern pop-culture references and coarse sexual gags. The Austin Powers bit was jarring. And don't get me wrong- I like a good erection joke as much as the next guy. But on the fifth or sixth pass, the whole thing starts to look like American Pie in togas.

Lesson number three: this is a play in need of some direction. It's a noisy, somewhat messy production, and the genuinely funny moments are often lost in a sea of flailing limbs and caroming bodies. Characters enter and leave scenes at apparently random points on stage, undercutting any sense of place. Also, about 75 per cent of the show- including the songs- is delivered directly to the audience. This prevents the characters from making meaningful connections with each other, and presents Steven Sondheim's dynamic score as an awkward concert hall recital. The cast members are also unapologetic and frequent muggers. Done correctly, a line delivered to the audience can be hilarious. But you have to earn those moments. If all you do is mug, the comedic impact is slowly drained away.

Lesson number four: a generally talented and energetic cast, no matter the obstacles laid before them, usually comes across as scruffily endearing. These guys go for it. They may not always hit their targets, but you have to admire their verve. Megan Nuttal was charming as Philia, the innocent courtesan, bringing a subtlety to her performance absent from the rest of the show. She's nicely understated, so when she does deliver a joke or a sight gag, it is very, very funny. Kudos also to Neil Silcox as the long-suffering Protean. Playing a multitude of roles from eunuch to soldier, he creates many of the show's funniest moments.

So, lessons learned. A Funny Thing Happened is rough, frenetic, and it certainly doesn't re-invent the wheel. But it does deliver a few good laughs. For $20 ($12 for students), its also not a bad way to spend an evening.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs until September 29. Tickets are available at Uofttix.ca.

Photo: Megan Nuttall as Philia and Robert Rainville as Hero. By Michel Mersereau.


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