Gallery Players stages Roman toga party with funny Forum

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 Messenger photos by John Matuszak

The lovers, liars and clowns of Gallery Players’ production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" – including, in front, Jared Saltman as the sly slave Pseudolus and Phillip Tobin as the hapless Hero – are caught in mid-farce. The Roman romp opens Feb. 23 and runs through March 9 at the Roth/Resler Theater, 1125 College Ave.

Larry Gelbart served his comedic apprenticeship under such classic clowns as Bob Hope, Danny Thomas and Sid Caesar, and worked with other budding talents Neil Simon and Woody Allen, before creating his own coterie of timeless tummlers in the TV series "M*A*S*H" and  films "Oh, God!" and "Tootsie."

But in his memoir, "Laughing Matters," he acknowledges that his real mentor starting cracking up audiences 2,300 years ago.

"It was he who created countless comic conventions and made use of humorous wordplay within the discipline of well-made plays," Gelbart observed of the Roman rib-tickler Plautus, who may be credited with popularizing the one-liner, the stand-up monologue, and the double-entendre while playing the original Caesar’s Palace.

He also employed such comic archetypes as the sly trickster, the dirty old man, the pompous military officer and the clueless lovers.

This legacy continues with "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," with a script by Gelbart and Burt Shevelove and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, being staged by Gallery Players Feb. 23 through March 9 at the Roth/Resler Theatre.

Based on three plays by Plautus, who wrote around 200 B.C., it was the first Broadway hit for Gelbart after 20 years of writing for radio and early television. And it was Sondheim’s first production as sole composer following collaborations as lyricist with Leonard Bernstein ("West Side Story") and Jule Styne ("Gypsy").

The plot concerns a wily Roman slave named Pseudolus who is promised freedom by his naive young master, Hero, if he can unite him with Philia, the virgin courtesan who lives next door in the house of Lycus.

"He’s the ultimate shyster," commented Jared Saltman, the Jewish Community Center’s artistic director, who will don a toga to play Pseudolus. "There is not one character that isn’t completely lied to. He’s always scheming and plotting to get out of situations he has created."

 
Hero (Phillip Tobin) sees her and imagines a happy future for the faithful Philia (Susan Bunsold Wilson), if only he can keep the comely courtesan away from Lycus, Miles Gloriosus and his own father long enough to marry her.

After making his deal with Hero, Pseudolous learns that Lycus has already sold Philia to an arrogant general, Miles Gloriosus, who will shortly claim her.

So he must find a way to get her away from Lycus and keep her away from the general, as well as Hero’s lecherous father, while stringing along the nervous head slave, Hysterium.

Meanwhile, the other next-door neighbor, Erronius, has been searching for 20 years for the son and daughter who were stolen by pirates, and who can only be identified by rings embossed with a gaggle of geese.

The farce flies at a furious pace, as characters run in and out of doors, take on other identities (Hysterium ends up in a dress disguised as the "dead" Philia) and engage in clever dialogue.

"Though you may have my body, you will never have my heart!" declares Philia, mistaking Hero’s father, Senex, for the general.

"Well, you can’t have everything," Senex replies as he sweeps her up.

Saltman, with the JCC since 2004, ended up in the lead role in a plot twist worthy of Plautus.

Gallery Players had planned to stage "South Pacific," but when suitable people for those roles could not be found, they considered substitutes and fell upon "Forum."

It turned out to be Saltman’s favorite show, and he had already played the part of Pseudolus while at Kenyon College.

"I have an affinity for the show," said Saltman, who auditioned along with the other hopefuls before being cast.

Pseudolus suits Saltman, who considers himself  "someone who likes to laugh and to make other people laugh."

Saltman is nothing if not versatile. His last performance was as a dog in Columbus Children’s Theatre’s production of "Bunnicula."

He was bit by the theatre bug while in high school in Maryland, and continued performing while at Kenyon (whose other famous thespian alum is Paul Newman).

After college, he performed with COSI’s museum theatre troupe, and also worked with the Red Herring, CATCO and Mad Lab companies before returning to COSI to manage their volunteer performers.

He is enjoying his moment back in the spotlight, although he admitted that he is more comfortable directing than performing comedy. "This has been a very serious challenge."

 
 Pseudolus (Jared Saltman, front) and back, Lycus (Sam Vestey), Senex (Bill Allan) and Hysterium (Scott Underwood) all agree that "Everybody Ought to Have  a Maid." But the dirty old men don’t have housekeeping on their minds.

Comedy tonight & forever

Not too serious, to be sure. For it’s "Comedy Tonight," as the show’s opening number promises.

For Gelbart, according to his memoir, it’s "comedy forever."

In creating "Forum," Gelbart concedes that he and his collaborators were trying to fill a "vulgarity void" in musical comedies by such luminaries as Rodgers and Hammerstein, that were short in the comedy department.

He had learned his craft writing for many of the greats of show business, and for classic TV programs, where he met Shevelove, who came up with the idea for the Roman romp.

They worked on some 10 drafts over two years, under the tutelage of director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, who later bowed out of the project but made one more lasting contribution, suggesting during try-outs the inclusion of the opening number "Comedy Tonight," to set the scene.

Sondheim, later noted for a darker brand of Broadway theatre, particularly with "Sweeney Todd," rose (or fell) to the occasion here with such numbers as "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" and "Bring Me My Bride," delivered by the maniacally martial Gloriosus.

Let haste be made
I cannot be delayed
There are lands to conquer
Cities to loot
And people to degrade

Their first choice for the role of Pseudolus was top banana Phil Silvers, but TV’s Sgt. Bilko didn’t quite get the drift of the play (another source says that Silvers couldn’t perform on stage without his glasses).

Their next choice was Milton Berle, who  expressed early enthusiasm but dropped out after some extensive cuts were made (and later restored).

Number three choice, Zero Mostel, proved to be their lucky number.

(If the coincidences of the script are not be to believed, consider that one of the plays by Plautus that they borrowed from is titled Mostelleria).

Mostel went on to win a Tony for his perormance, and the play picked up the award for best musical. Sondheim, however, was not even nominated for his score.

In fact, every actor who has opened as Pseudolus went on to win a Tony, including Silvers in a 1972 revival and Nathan Lane in the 1996 production. Jason Alexander even copped a trophy for his turn as the sly slave in a Sondheim revue.

Mostel and Jack Gilford, as Hysterium, reprised their roles in the film version, which, unfortunately, excised most of Sondheim’s score and diluted the delightful delirium.

After living in London for many years, where "Forum" had a successful run, Gelbart came back to the States to develop the movie "M*A*S*H" into a television series, helming the first four seasons.

The show employed numerous Plautus-tudes, raising lechery to an art form in the person of Hawkeye, creating cross-dressing  Corporal Klinger, and deflating Defense Department dummies.

Plautus would have been proud.

Gallery Players’ production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" will be presented Saturday, Feb. 23, March 1 and 8, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 24, March 2 and 9, at 2:30 p.m.; Thursday, Feb. 28 and March 6, at 7:30 p.m., at 1125 College Ave.

Tickets for individual shows are $12 for JCC members, $18 for nonmembers, $10 for senior members, $16 for senior non-members, $8 for students, and $10 per ticket for groups of 10 or more.

For information, visit the Gallery Players website at jccgalleryplayers.org, or call 559-6248.

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