All-Male ‘Forum’ Borrows from Ancient Roman Roots

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

There’s something familiar and something peculiar about Two River Theater Company‘s production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”. It’s the same classic Broadway show with a twist—the cast is all male.

The idea came to director Jessica Stone when she was asked if she’d be interested in performing in a production of Forum at the prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival.

“And I thought, ‘Why don’t I want to be in that?'” remembers Stone. “And I thought, ‘Well, I think those female parts of the courtesan who can’t spell, and the shrewish wife and then just the courtesan who doesn’t speak at all, she just runs around half-naked. They’ve all been stereotypes.'”

The musical is based on comedies by the ancient roman playwright Plautus. His stock characters would have all been played by men.

Forum is not only based on ancient Roman plays, it takes place in ancient Rome. Stone wondered if the comedy of the show would shift if all of the characters were played by men—as they would’ve been in Plautus’s time. Instead of acting in the musical at Williamstown, she directed it—staging the show as if it was being performed in ancient Rome by a troupe of actors. But would audiences like the new/old spin?

“Oh, I was a nervous wreck. I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous,” said Stone.

Actor David Turner plays the show’s ingenue, Philia

“I mean, the female roles are male ideas of women anyway, so why not actually make them take ownership of that,” Turner said. “And I think that made it catch on so well with audiences.”

Stone’s vision for the Williamstown production is re-staged here in Red Bank with a few holdovers from the original cast like Turner and actor Christopher Fitzgerald, who plays the lead character Pseudolus, who was made famous by Zero Mostel. The production also adds many new faces like Michael Urie of “Ugly Betty” fame.

The stunning Sondheim songs and fast-paced book remain intact, and the musical’s kooky vaudevillian bits are only amplified by Stone’s choice to double-cast most of the roles, having actors play multiple parts.

Stone said, “I think there’s something interesting about seeing the same guy who’s playing the leering old man, is also playing a courtesan.”

She makes it clear that she does not think this is the only way Forum should be done.

“I think it’s still of its time, and it could be a perfect delight to see a bunch of old guys chasing after half-naked women, and I say that seriously,” said Stone.

But she says, in 2015, an all-male cast can turn Forum’s more sexist guilty-pleasure numbers into just pleasures.