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Friends, Romans...

...Courtesans? Funny Thing, that
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 28, 2009

SALLYING FORTH: With knives and Chucks.

Colorful archetypes abound in this super-stratified society of ancient Rome: The dirty old rich man, Senex (Stephen Underwood), is perfectly, shamelessly giddy over the lovely virgin, Philia (Annie Unnold). He's also perfectly pussy-whipped by Domina (Denise Poirier), the utterly imperious wife. Their impossibly innocent son, Hero (Chris Reiling), is pie-eyed with thwarted love for same said virgin, and then there's the household help: The good slave, Hysterium (Will Sandstead), is a completely insufferable brown-noser, while the lazy, rogue slave, Pseudolus (Tony Reilly), will seize on any scheme to win his own freedom. These and other pointedly named characters collide and ricochet in the Sondheim musical farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, on stage now in a buoyant and lavishly appointed production by the Good Theater, directed by Brian P. Allen.

Unfortunately for young Hero, the lovely virgin is also a slave and a courtesan in the brothel of madam Marcus Lycus (Cathy Counts) next door, and she is about to be sold to the narcissistic warrior Miles Gloriosus (Bill Ellis). But wily Pseudolus — who is also the show's charismatic narrator — sees an opportunity. There follows a slew of disguises, potions, untruths, and self-interested slapstick misbehavior (accented nicely by the live band's rim-shots, cowbell, and slide whistle) by characters both low and high on the social ladder.

Vivid is the visual contrast between those classes, thanks to the Good Theater's superb production design: the lowly are cartoonishly scruffy, the rich absolutely sumptuous. Pseudolus and his gang of Proteans (ever-morphing players who help with the exposition) wear blah shifts, striped leggings, and Chucks. For the well-heeled Romans, wardrobe coordinator Nina Jones acquired some decadent costumes on loan from the Cincinnati Playhouse, making the wealthy gleam in metallic and royal-hued luxury, the men bearing alluringly shiny daggers and swords, the women coiffed with glamorous wigs. Janet Montgomery's gorgeous set paints Senex's house in burnished ocher and orange, while the house of flesh next door is all cool seduction in indigo and silver.

The courtesans who emerge from it to ply their wares are manna for the eyes. Lithe Tintinabula (professional belly dancer Jeanne Handy) undulates and rings finger chimes; Panacea (Janis Greim) strikes poses in the blue sequins of an Ice-Capades-meets-Frederick's-of-Hollywood ensemble; and bendy Gymnasia (Nell Shipman) glowers over her chrome-domed bustier. The Geminae (Vanessa Beyland and Jen Means), twin redheads with bob cuts, cavort together in coral ombrû chiffon under red gels. Lush stuff!

Forum calls for a big, boisterous cast. Not every voice in this production is Broadway caliber, but the strength of the ensemble more than compensates, and it brims with local favorites in some very sharp casting. I use the word "louche" a lot when I'm reviewing Tony Reilly, but he's just so damn good at it; his shuffling Pseudolus is a lecherous but affable trickster. Underwood and Reiling, both lean, leggy, and very expressive physical actors, are a super father-son duo, and as for Domina, I can't think of a better choice than Poirier, with her haughty poise and the terrifying upswing in that voice of hers. As her rival Philia, the plot's virgin linchpin, Unnold has a sheer voice and easy, facile radiance.

Allen's nimble cast keeps everything frothy and tongue-in-cheek in this unabashedly light romp. The show's comic timing, its eye candy, and its vaudevillian titillations should sate a whole social array of pleasure-seekers.

Megan Grumbling can be reached

Related: Review: Good Theater's solid Moonlight and Magnolias, Lovely luxury, Finding her voice, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Brian P. Allen, Janis Greim, Marcus Lycus,  More more >
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