Moral Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight

Segueing awkwardly from my last post, I’m way overdue for my last batch of reviews from the Stratford Shakespeare festival. We went back twice this summer since opening week, once in July and once in August, and I haven’t posted anything. Now the season is entering the home stretch; one show has already closed, and six more will close by the end of next weekend. So before it’s completely pointless, I’m going to try to make up for lost time.

I’m going to start, though, with a show that, while you can still see it, it can’t possibly be the same show I saw (though I’m sure it is still excellent).

Some years ago, Stratford mounted a rather dismal production of Aristophanes’ The Birds. I went into the play very excited; Aristophanes doesn’t get done much, and I’d never seen a production. My hopes were, I fear, rather overextended, and got dashed rather badly.

At a discussion some time after, then-Executive Director (now General Director) Antoni Cimolino asked his audience why we still put on productions of Aristophanes, but not productions of Plautus. To which question a variety of answers were presented. But the right answer is: why do Plautus when you can do A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum!

I saw Forum back in July, along with West Side Story and Bartholomew Fair. Since then, Forum has undergone a rather dramatic transformation: the star has had to withdraw for health reasons (don’t worry: he’s going to be fine; he just can’t perform). Of course, the show must go on, and is going on; by all reports the understudy did a fabulous job for several weeks, and has now been replaced permanently by Sean Cullen, who is probably best known for playing Max Bialystok in the Toronto production of The Producers but who I know best as Basil in Slings and Arrows. That said, howsoever excellent they have been, are and will be, I regret profoundly that anyone who reads this review and is inspired to by tickets to the show (and you should) will not have the opportunity to see Bruce Dow in a role for which he is ideally suited, and fully filled the suit.

Filling that particular suit, once worn by Zero Mostel, is no small matter. When I first heard that they were going to do a Broadway show based on the movie, “The Producers,” and that it would star Nathan Lane, I immediately had a vision of Lane lying asleep in his bed (naturally wearing a long stockingcap with requisite tassel), tossing and turning in the throes of a horrible dream in which Mostel’s ghost rose up to threaten him for taking his place, crying: “this I’ll give you Nathan – that I’ll give you Nathan – this I’ll give you Nathan!” I have no doubt that Dow had nightmares along similar lines.

As he did last year in Cabaret, however, Dow overcame a daunting predecessor by eschewing mimicry, making the role his own. Dow is a very sweet performer, rarely if ever manifesting the kind of savagery that marked Mostel’s best work. As the Emcee in Cabaret, Dow was helped by a production that, for all its flaws, had the virtue of being ideally suited to his personality and temperament. His Emcee resembled neither Joel Grey’s death’s head nor Alan Cummings’ disco rat but a giant needy baby, a monster of polymorphous perversity, but a lovable monster. (See here for my review of that show.)

I obviously haven’t seen Mostel’s stage run of Forum, only the movie version, but even from a terrible movie I think I get a clear enough picture of what he was doing. And again, his performance is anchored in a kind of savage cunning. Dow’s Pseudolus was far more reminiscent to me of Bill Irwin’s Scapin, which I saw years ago at the Roundabout. Dow is nothing like Irwin’s physical type – but he drinks from the same well of clownery, one that is always aiming to make a child laugh, whether that’s an actual young theatergoer or the child inside the adult member of the audience. That’s one reason, I think, why his chemistry with Stephen Ouimette’s Hysterium is so wonderful. Ouimette is the sad clown as well as the hysteric, and half the time Dow seems not merely trying to manipulate him but actually to cheer him up – and he seems delighted as much as alarmed when Ouimette begins to sing “I’m lovely” in earnest.

Ouimette delivers only one of a great many excellent performances in this production, but I want to particularly call out the lovers, Mike Nadajewski, a cross between Martin Short and Mark Linn-Baker, and at least as funny as either; and Chilina Kennedy, who between her enormous smile and her . . . no comment decolletage manages to steal every scene she’s in before she even sings. The pair of them make crossing stupidity with cupidity look like genius. Randy Hughson also deserves a nod for his rather sweet Senex, along with Brian Tree, who is perfectly cast as the elderly and myopic Erronius. And all three of the Proteans – Jordan Bell, Stephen Cota, and Julius Sermonia – fully fulfill the promise of their title, morphing instantly from laborers to eunics to soldiers without dropping any of the balls they (literally) have in the air. And then of course, there are the mouthwateringly lovely ladies of the House of Lycus. Lycus himself is somewhat mincingly realized by Cliff Saunders, and Dan Chameroy is somewhat less than terrifying as Miles Gloriosus, but these are really the only detractions I can come up with from what is overall a really stupendous cast.

A couple of final words about the production. Several people to whom I mentioned that we were bringing our then-not-quite-seven-year-old son to see Forum raised an eyebrow. This is, after all, a show most of which takes place in and around a brothel. And I can’t say I wasn’t little worried about some of the questions I might get. (“Dad – what’s a eunic?”) But I can say without qualification that this is, to my mind, an entirely family-friendly show – because it delivers good, clean lechery without the slightest hint of darkness, depravity or guilt. It feels weird to have to applaud a sex farce done straight and with gusto, but that’s what this production delivers and I applaud it.