Pseudolus. Erronius. Hysterium.
These words aren’t entries in a farcical periodic table of the elements, although they might read that way. They’re among the descriptive character names in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — a Stephen Sondheim play that, as one can reasonably infer, doesn’t take itself too seriously.
That’s among the reasons Tri-M Productions is presenting the play to close its 2022 season, says Artistic Director Marilyn Barnes. The production offers a breather after a pair of more serious offerings: Cabaret, set amid the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, and Spring Awakening, which touches on sexual abuse, parental abandonment, and death. A Funny Thing also is a tribute to Sondheim, who died in November 2021 at 91.
“I didn’t want to become known as a political group,” Barnes says of the company. “I wanted to veer completely away from that and do something that people just kind of laugh their heads off at. I think we need that. As we try to recover from the pandemic, I think we still have quite a bit of healing to do.”
Tri-M is short for Millennial Music Makers. The nonprofit was founded as a showcase for “early career professionals.” The oldest actor in A Funny Thing is 41; the youngest is in her teens. For Barnes, who taught at the College of Santa Fe and Santa Fe High School, Tri-M has provided a chance to continue working with younger people during her retirement.
The play is rife with elements of farce, Barnes says, such as puns, slamming doors, satirical social commentary, and cases of mistaken identity. It is a takeoff on the Roman comedies of Plautus, famed in part for reimagining Greek plays to ensure they resonated with Roman audiences. Plautus also penned an unrelated play titled Pseudolus, an early example of Roman literature.
Plautus died in 184 BC. A Funny Thing hit Broadway in 1962 — a mere 2,146 years later. The piece, with book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, garnered six Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Author. The title is a twist on a classic opening line used by vaudeville comedians: “A funny thing happened on the way to the theater.”
Sondheim’s play focuses on the foibles of the aforementioned Pseudolus, a slave who attempts to gain his freedom by helping his young master, Hero, win the affections of Philia, a courtesan who lives next door. There’s just one problem: She has been sold to a warrior, Miles Gloriosus, who is expected to claim her soon.
Pseudolus, who was played by Zero Mostel in the original Broadway production and the 1966 film, won’t let that fact — or facts, period — clutter his path to freedom. He convinces Philia’s father that she has a condition that causes her to smile excessively and must isolate to avoid contaminating others. The ruse works, greasing the wheels for an ever-growing web of deception on the part of Pseudolus. While “isolating,” Philia is visited by Hero, and they indeed fall in love. But that’s not the end of the story.
Santa Fe’s Bear Schacht, who portrays Pseudolus, says he sat out the past couple of Tri-M plays because they featured darker material. Spending months on a production affects one’s spirits, he says.
“You spend a lot of time with the other actors,” says Schacht, 27. “You get to know each other, and you spend a lot of time with the show material. It definitely makes a difference.”
Caiti Lord of Madrid, who plays Marcus Lycus in A Funny Thing, was involved in Spring Awakening and calls it the most intense show she has ever done.
“It was a constructive outlet to meet with aspects of myself that I didn’t know what to do [with] but stifle,” Lord, 32, says via email. “It was freeing at the end of the play, when I was able to put my trauma and pain to rest, in a way.”
That is to say, she welcomes the lighter subject matter.
“It is really a nice shift to be in a show where we are crying laughing at rehearsal instead of crying from sadness,” Lord says. “This show has really forced me to push my own boundaries in comedy and bombasticity on stage, as well as playing and seeing how far I can go before I’m told it is too much. I am learning I REALLY enjoy laughs and making people laugh in my own life.”
Schacht agreed about the joy of making others laugh — and not just audience members. He relishes challenging his fellow actors’ ability to stay serious, using subtle tools such as body language and vocal inflection to bring them to the brink of guffawing.
“The more silly I can manage to be, the more fun it ends up being,” he says. “One of my favorite things is noticing when an actor is getting close to breaking.”
One of his main conversational sparring partners in A Funny Thing is Lord, who says she can’t even look at some other characters without laughing.
Schacht also appreciates getting to sing, and he and his cast mates get plenty of opportunities, taking on familiar tunes such as “Comedy Tonight,” “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” and “Lovely.” A band featuring electric piano, trumpet, bass guitar, and percussion will accompany them, led by Tri-M Productions Musical Director Kathlene Ritch.
The musicians will be seated behind the actors, arranged so they don’t block the trio of rear doors that are integral to the comedy reaching its full-farce potential.
The cast has been rehearsing in a space at Teatro Paraguas, Barnes says, because the Playhouse space won’t be available until days before the production begins. The crew won’t get much chance to test the acoustics at the Playhouse, she says.
“It’s very terrifying,” Barnes acknowledges. That said, the use of microphones means “we have some electronic control of how to make the balance perfect.”
Laura Garrett is the choreographer, Anne de May is the costume designer, and Sarah LeBlanc is the production designer.
The set for A Funny Thing includes three donated background “flats” with carved-out doors and windows. It’s a complex set by Tri-M standards, Barnes says, given that the company’s charter calls for austerity.
The play’s first act runs nearly 80 minutes, while the second is 39, Barnes says. That said, the actors have the energy of youth on their side.