A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Leave it to good ol’ Pioneer Theatre Company to take a show we’ve already seen a few times — the musical farce “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” — and do the most polished, professional and funny production of it yet, effectively ruining any other versions we may see in the future.

Farce is a hard kind of comedy to do (it’s so easy to either be too big or too small), but the cast here is surprisingly strong, most of them with a clear understanding of what makes farce work.

Pseudolus (Max Robinson) is a Bugs Bunny-like slave in Roman times, always one step ahead of the game with a witty one-liner or two, and always with a scheme up his sleeve. He wants his freedom, which his teen-age master Hero (Joey Sorge) agrees to give him if he can procure a particular courtesan by the name of Philia (Becky Watson) from the local whorehouse.

Problem is, Philia has already been purchased by a military captain named Miles Gloriosus (Erik Stein). There are also a dozen or so subplots involving Hero’s parents Senex (Robert Peterson) and Domina (Lorraine Serabian), an old man named Erronius (Chet Carlin) and his search for his long-lost children, and fellow slave Hysterium’s (Wayne Scherzer), um, hysteria.

Along the way we get one great Stephen Sondheim musical number after another, from the slam-bang opener “Comedy Tonight,” to the delightfully lecherous “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” to Senex and Hero’s duet about whether the other could possible be in love with Philia (“Impossible”).

Robinson is a wonderful Pseudolus, and Peterson is also especially enjoyable as dirty-old-man Senex. Knowing that both actors are mature, talented thespians, adept even at the deepest of Shakespeare’s works, makes them even funnier as they roll in the mud, as it were, with this lowbrow (but not childish) goofiness — funnier than, say, seeing high school kids doing it.

In fact, everyone in the cast seems to revel in the sheer, wild silliness of what they’re doing. Stein’s Miles Gloriosus is grandiose and full of himself, strutting around and speaking boomingly. But he’s also hysterical in the way he poses himself, and especially in his slithery, mock-sexy walk. It’s basically a guy who doesn’t know how stupid he is, being played by a guy who knows EXACTLY how stupid he is.

And that’s the key here: Everyone plays everything for laughs, unashamed to have his or her character defined by one withering look (Domina), or by one emotion (Hysterium). Everyone’s funny, but no one’s trying to be the funniest, and that’s what makes it all come together.

This has long been one of my favorite shows, and I was delighted to see it done by a company that had the resources to do it well. It bode well for the rest of the PTC season, which had several other interesting items on it.