Monday, November 9, 2015

Something Familiar, Something Peculiar: A Chat with Jessica Stone about her All-Male 'FORUM'

I love theater. And I have learned over the course of my career that great theater is adaptable; a great play or musical, when approached in a new way, will reveal new facets that can illuminate the whole with fresh insight. One of my favorite examples of this is our upcoming production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which I had the good luck to see in its earlier incarnation at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 2010. As always, the show (which is perhaps the greatest musical farce of all time) was hilarious and delightful. But this time around something was different; director Jessica Stone chose to stage the play with an all-male cast. I sat down with Jessica during a recent rehearsal of the show to talk to her about why she made this choice, and how it affects both the actors and the audience. 
        -Anika Chapin, Two River Theater Literary Manager

Jessica Stone


Which came first—the idea of doing the show or the idea of doing it with all men?

The idea happened before I ever started directing, when I was still working as an actor. Almost six years ago, [Williamstown Theatre Company Artistic Director] Nicky Martin was going to put it in his season, and he asked me to be in it. My first thought was, I don’t want to be in that show—and then I started thinking about why I had that response, because I’ve known the score since I was a kid, and I love it. But I thought about these stereotypes that have been passed down to us from Plautus, who was a male playwright writing for male actors (women weren’t allowed to act). These stereotypes are still with us today in plays, movies, and sitcoms. Female actors have become very familiar with the ‘dumb hottie,’ the ‘shrewish wife,’ and the ‘overly sexed, scantily clad vixen.’ I suggested to Nicky that he should do an all-male production, because it would be interesting to see what happens to the comedy if you make what’s basically an all-male show, actually all-male.

I’m not suggesting this is the only way Forum can be done now; I certainly think there are plenty of people who would be happy to see an old man chasing after a scantily clad woman. (Laughs) I’m not even suggesting that enjoying a traditional execution of the show is shallow. It is of its era, or two eras: both Ancient Rome and the 1960s. Not only is the source material written by a man for men but the adapted musical was written in the ‘60s by a bunch of men for a bunch of men. So it’s fine and delightful to do it in a traditional way, but why not try it this way and see what happens to the comedy if we’re not having to actually think about female slavery; or about the fact that this character doesn’t say a word, she’s just naked all night and gyrating; or, ‘oh, it’s interesting that the woman that Hero wants is an illiterate hooker but she’s still highborn so his honor is still intact.’ They are all male constructs: it’s basically an all-male show already. When I presented this argument to Nicky, he said, all right you do it. It was the first thing I ever directed, though I had been assisting directors for a while, (particularly Nicky) and he had always encouraged me to go in this direction.

It’s such a strong and wonderful approach to the show, to flip those archetypes
around. And to make a nod to its origins with Plautus and that era of theater.

We’re setting it in Ancient Rome, in the age of Augustus, who was the first Roman emperor after the assassination of Julius Caesar. The time is a little after Plautus, but it’s once there were permanent theaters in Rome—the idea is to establish that we are watching a scrappy troupe of Roman actors (hence the all-male thing) telling our tale. I also wanted it to be a company of guys that were somewhat in the same ballpark age-wise—late 20s to late 40s—so that we have this unified palette that’s playing all ages and all sexes, to highlight their virtuosity. And it works fairly well because Roman comedy itself was fairly self-conscious; the actors were constantly talking to the audience, and commenting on themselves and their parts.

And as you were working on the show, did anything surprise you?

I knew it was a really funny book with a great score, but I discovered how impeccably crafted it is. I think the book in particular is one of the best constructed books in musical comedy. And the score is so elegant it elevates the entire evening, it’s not just Borscht Belt humor. There are a thousand things that make Sondheim a theater legend. Lyrically, there’s no one who touches him; no one is the puzzle master that he is. But musically, Sondheim is both intellectual and emotional; I feel awe and admiration when hearing complex melodic structures while still feeling moved by the beauty.

When did you know the all-male casting would work?

Not until the first preview in Williamstown. The thing that’s interesting to me is that all of what works about Forum still works: the jokes are so fantastic. What we didn’t know until the first preview audience saw the show was how beautifully they responded to the courtesans—it became less about “look at that beautiful woman, and Pseudolus wants her so badly and he just can’t buy her yet.” But more, “look at that man working so hard to play that woman for real. This is just so silly and delicious.” It’s not drag at all, which is a totally different art form. It’s about actors really playing all of these different women, even the wordless ones, for real, with all of their stakes. And also, how fun would it be for the same guy who’s playing Senex, the dirty old man, to also be a courtesan? It makes it silly and interesting to watch the leering man also be the other side of the leer. “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” is a spectacular song. Some today might argue that it’s very sexist. I’m not making that argument because it’s too complex a matter to delve into here. I will say that we really get to enjoy how spectacular the song is on a totally different level when they maid they’re singing about is played by a guy.

I totally agree. Seeing men play those roles and wear those archetypes made the characters come alive and highlighted ideas of femininity in ways I had never seen before. Later in the season we’re doing I Remember Mama with all women and that illuminates the specific femininity of the mother-daughter relationship and provides a different insight into that play the way that this all-male casting provides an insight into this play.

We can’t be afraid to take an existing thing and turn it inside out and explore it. Otherwise we’re not doing our job as artists.

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