Behold the gorgeous ancient Roman courtesan/dominatrix snapping a bullwhip. While tap-dancing. In high heels. Around the corner, a general and two eunuchs sprint down the hallway past the white-veiled virgin.
“Chaos,” the virgin says. “Chaos.”
Another Friday at Caligula’s crib? Kinky, but no. Our S&M Ginger Rogers taps away the time in a backstage room awaiting her cue—yes, she’ll wield the bullwhip onstage—while the general and eunuchs try not to miss theirs. Each eventually emerges from the darkened wings of 2012 into the bright lights of 54 AD, where the Roman Empire bursts out in song.
Welcome to something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone, a comedy called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum tonight. Performed at UNLV’s Judy Bayley Theatre, it’s staged by graduate students (and a couple of Actors’ Equity pros) of Nevada Conservatory Theatre, putting on one of theater’s great put-ons.
Forum is a Caesar salad of bawdy comedy—American vaudeville in ancient Rome—featuring madcap characters headed by scheming slave Pseudolus. Attempting to gain his freedom, he helps his young master win the virgin next door, unleashing a frenetic screwball farce. Or, as composer Stephen Sondheim wrote in his “Comedy Tonight” lyrics: Nothing with kings/Nothing with crowns/Bring on the lovers, liars and clowns.
Ever heard a eunuch tell a dirty joke? “What two things in the air can get a girl pregnant?” the eunuch asks castmates in the men’s dressing room 15 minutes before curtain-up. Um … what? “Her legs!”
Castmates giggle and groan while slipping tunics over their undies. Jokes get progressively less PC. Because leprosy—i.e., “The Plague!”—is played for laughs onstage, Pseudolus makes a hilariously tasteless joke we won’t repeat that breaks up co-stars he leads into the wings as the orchestra strikes up the overture.
Gathered behind the set—the facades of three houses—the cast scampers up metal staircases and streams through the doors into the footlights of another world.
Nothing that’s formal/Nothing that’s normal/No recitations to recite/Open up the curtain/Comedy tonight.
Audience applause. Lunacy commences as Pseudolus sets the daft plot in motion. Backstage, two stagehands are engrossed in their cellphones. Another is playing Zombie Bowling on a computer. Cut ’em slack. They’ve done the stagehand-y stuff beforehand, prepping for costume changes, checking lighting and sound, laying out props. (Glancing at the props table teaches you theatrical terms. Note what’s written on masking tape under a pair of maracas: “MARIACHI SHIT.” Apparently a technical term. And yes, Roman soldiers briefly become a maracas-shaking mariachi band.)
While the play barrels on, cast members scurry onstage and offstage. Marcus Lycus (“procurer” of the house of courtesans) compliments Miles Gloriosus (the vain, testosterone-addled warrior who’s been promised the virgin as his bride) on how his preening and swaggering is playing to the crowd.
“When you’re dressed like this,” says Gloriosus—decked out in helmet, armor and a sword reeking of phallic symbolism—“you come out with your dick swingin’.” (Well said, Miles.) Later, however, Pseudolus notes that Gloriosus missed a cue, albeit a minor one. (Shall we joke that the “dick-swingin’” actor failed to properly, um, insert himself into the scene?)
Having opened the show as soldiers, a couple of actors pop back to the dressing room to become eunuchs, going bare-chested while wiggling into gold, vinyl hip-huggers, looking like walking Oscar trophies. Returning to the wings, they’re handed feather fans to cool their onstage masters. Backstage, courtesans mill about.
One, a hot tigress who could double for a Roman Eartha Kitt, rushes past a sound engineer, her tiger feathers flapping around exposed, well-toned flesh. “Sorry, sorry,” she says, sailing by. “No … Apology … Necessary,” the engineer quips, his leer following her through the door. Another sassy lass in a blue bikini thingie complains about her outfit. “It gives me a bubble butt,” she says, then shakes the little bells attached to her costume that jingle when she walks away. “Merry Christmas,” she says over her shoulder. One can’t help thinking about unwrapping her gifts.
Back in the dressing room, Senex (the tunic-clad, gray-bearded, lecherous old man lusting after the woman he doesn’t realize is his son’s virginal love interest) is avidly playing the game Hanging With Friends on his cellphone. Animated characters frolic across his small screen as he keeps an ear on the intercom that broadcasts the show throughout the hallway so actors can hear their cues.
Outta the way! Outta the way! Hysterium, the overwrought slave roped into Pseudolus’ devious dealings, races backstage, where assistants help him out of his tunic and into a dress and wig while he quickly applies lipstick. (Yes, now we’re into an ancient Roman drag show). Sprinting onstage, Hysterium takes his/her place as a female corpse that Pseudolus tries to pass off to Gloriosus as a dead virgin so the real one can be with his master.
While wacky chases, slamming doors and classic tunes (“Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” “Lovely”) play out as the craziness climaxes, actors aren’t unaware of who’s in the audience, namely, Las Vegas Review-Journal theater critic Anthony Del Valle. Where was he, exactly? Was he the guy dressed in blue or red, they wonder. Not that they were playing to him … right, guys?
Cast members reassemble for the reprise of “Comedy Tonight” to end the musical. Most depart to enthusiastic applause, leaving only Pseudolus and the whip-snapping courtesan/dominatrix, whose S&M accouterment, pointed at Pseudolus, provides the final guffaw.
Since this is a shameless sex farce, we’ll note that as she retreats backstage, the night’s nuttiness over, she’s arousing enough to give many men—how should we put this delicately?—a healthy Roman candle.