A Funny Thing Happened to the Cast of “Forum”
Lydia Calitri | 11/18/16 11:46am
| Updated 11/18/16 11:46am
Cara Gabriel’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s farce musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” had a successful two weekend run from October 20 to October 29 at the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theater. The show was full of high-strung comedy, brilliant musical numbers and unforgettable characters, but this particular production stood out due to the successful performances from its gender-swapped characters.
“Forum”’s story, at its core, is about a slave in Ancient Rome named Pseudolus (played by senior Izzy Smelkinson) whose only desire is to be free before high jinks ensues. Pseudolus serves not only as the story’s protagonist, but also as the show’s emcee. She introduces and closes the performance with the show’s most well-known song, “Comedy Tonight” and constantly breaks the fourth wall to contemplate the situation she’s in. Because she is the protagonist, Pseudolus also has the most character development out of the whole cast.
As the circumstances make it even more difficult for her to receive her freedom, she stays one step ahead of everyone by using her clever wits and wise-cracking charm. She can be raunchy and silly, but knows when it’s time to get serious. Although the part is typically played by a man, Smelkinson was still able to capture the essence of the character’s distinct personality in her performance. When asked what Smelkinson brought to the performance that the other male actors could not, Gabriel, the show’s director replied, “Her energy, comic timing, vocal chops, and fearlessness,” which are all strong qualities for an outstanding lead role.
“Forum”’s other gender-swapped cast member was senior Robin Weiner, who played the part of Marcus Lycus, the owner of a promiscuous whorehouse. Weiner put a twist on this character as a female actress by portraying her as more of a motherly figure for the girls in the house rather than a greedy and remorseless buyer and seller of women. Weiner explained that the gender-swap allowed her to show two different sides of the character that a male could not: an “overconfident, sexy” side when she is introduced and a “frigid, anxious and childlike” side as the show progresses into insanity.
“Cara gave me the choice when I was cast to play Lycus as a male or a female,” Weiner said. “I decided to play her as a female because as a female-identifying person…it was easier to draw upon my own experiences as a female when approaching the role, but also because it gave me the freedom to reinvent the character and play Lycus in a completely new way.”
In addition to developing the characters, the actresses and director also had the challenge of making them funny. “Comedy is very specific and carefully choreographed,” Gabriel said. “Forum” made use of all kinds of humor, from dirty jokes to physical comedy, that built up the farce until all the characters were in a state of complete disaster. Each character not only had a distinct voice, but also a distinct movement. Gabriel derived this acting style from the stock character tropes of Plautus, the playwright that “Forum” is based on. Weiner explained that Pseudolus, as a cunning slave, “leads from her head because she is confident and clever,” whereas Marcus Lycus, a pimp, “leads from her pelvis to enhance her sexuality and proclaim her power over the courtesans.” This acting style not only added nuance to the characters to make them stand out from a comedic standpoint, but also allowed their female actresses to create a different kind of performance that their male counterparts could not give with the same role.
“Forum” will not be the only show in the 2016-2017 season that includes gender-swapped cast members. A completely gender-swapped version of “Dracula” has already been cast and is set to premiere around December. After winter break, auditions for a gender-swapped version of “Jason and the Argonauts” will be held in January. American University’s theater will continue to give actors and actresses the opportunity to step into new roles and give new insight into characters audiences have become so familiar with.
At this time, the American Word would like to extend our most sincere condolences to the family and friends of Z’ane Davis-Smith. A musical theatre major, Z’ane was deeply involved in AU’s performing arts and appeared as Vibrata in “Forum” this semester. Words can’t express how saddened we are to lose a fellow Eagle.