“Haunted House Party”: Roman comedy makes a comeback after 2200 years

MALIBU, Calif. – A funny thing happened on the way to the Villa: Every once in a great while I see a show full of so much inspired insanity and silliness that it makes me feel glad to be alive, if only to partake of such madcap merriment. Examples include the Broadway production of Spamalot and L.A. Opera’s mounting of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. The Troubadour Theater Company and Getty Museum’s Haunted House Party, A Roman Comedy is such sheer delight that it joins the rarefied ranks of plays I’ve seen, filling me with such an overwhelming sense of the joy of life, that after the proverbial curtain fell I felt like paraphrasing Hamlet: “I have of late, but wherefore I know why, lost all my misery….”

This laughfest is the Getty Villa’s annual outdoor theater production which, in keeping with the museum’s focus and forte, has ancient Greek and/or Roman roots and themes. Haunted House Party is the freewheeling Troubadour’s adaptation of Mostellaria – and no, this is not the cheese on your pizza but rather the Roman playwright Plautus’ second century BCE comedy classic. (Incidentally, the Romanesque romp is actually set in Athens – not Rome.)

MMCC years on, Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE) is ready for his close-up on L.A. stages. In our Common Era, versions of the comeback kid’s plays have been performed by Theatre Palisades and Los Angeles Theatre Center, respectively (if not necessarily “respectfully”) presenting A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (which was likewise inspired by Mostellaria, as well as Plautus’ Pseudolus and Miles Gloriosus) and The Pot of Gold (La Olla, based on Plautus’ Anfitrion).

Recounting Haunted House Party‘s plot would be a total waste of time, because the story is just an excuse for the delirious Troubies to work their magical mayhem, unleashing a torrent of inventive vaudeville, commedia dell’arte, slapstick, daffy parodies of pop songs (accompanied by a four-piece band playing live music), dance, ad libs (latecomer, thou hast been warned!), gay repartee, witty ripostes, and much more.

The wizardry of the Troubies’ wordplay is worthy of a weird Wordsworth, with puns and bon mots such as: “Get your minds out of the aqueducts!” and “Apollo-care” (ancient Athenian health insurance – if you didn’t get it, you’re like the millions of uninsured Americans who still don’t get Obamacare). And lawdy, the language is bawdy, along with much of the action, so despite the sight gags galore, this mishmash full of prostitutes, transsexuals (or is it transvestites? the play doesn’t specify), and so on is probably not suitable for the tykes.

The Troubies’ sound designer is Robert Arturo Ramirez, while its sound effects maestros, Tyler King, Andy Lopez and James Bane, are to the slide whistle what Edward Snowden is to whistleblowers. Costume designer Sharon McGunigle’s Athenian apparel is noteworthy and especially welcome, as unlike many contemporary adaptations from Greek or Roman sources, there are enough togas here for an Animal House-caliber toga party. Christopher Scott Murillo’s fluid scenic design also works well – and by the way, kiddies, don’t leave the amphitheater until the proverbial “end credits” have completely, shall we say, rolled.

The Troubies’ troupe is too large to single out every performer, but among the colorful cast’s standouts is Carole Foreman, the play’s sole African American, who, as Scapha, pointedly, playfully points out: “Guess who gets to play the maid?” Foreman is a versatile actress/singer/hoofer with an effervescent appeal and presence. As the long-tressed son Philolaches, Nicholas Cutro looks and acts like a cross between Prince Valiant, Dennis Hopper and Harpo Marx as he woos James Michael Lambert’s crossdressing (or transgender?) Philematium, the filly Philolaches dropped many borrowed drachmas on to purchase from a brothel.

Beth Kennedy does double duty as Grumio, a slave, and in a scene-stealing bit, as Mr. Moneygrub – while Jesus said, “The poor shall always be with us,” this number reminds us that so have greedy bloodsucking capitalists (at least until the former get rid of the latter). Matt Walker is delightful as the slave Tranio, and as Party‘s adaptor and director, has fun calling penalty on plays made by actors flubbing their lines, like referees making calls at football games.

The irrepressible Troubies have previously wrought their hilarious takes – or, perhaps, one should say double takes – on classics with clever titles like Fleetwood MacBeth and Hamlet the Artist Formerly Known as Prince of Denmark. I previously witnessed ABBAmemnon, which did not fulfill the promise of its premise. But Haunted House Party definitely does and pays off in a big way.

If you love yourself and/or a fellow theatergoer, treat yourself to this onstage pandemonium which modern ticket buyers can behold beneath the stars like ancient audiences – in an amphitheater. Something for everyone: Commedia dell’arte tonight! Let us applaud Plautus and render a standing ovation to his latter day interpreters, the Troubies, whose farcical frolic is worth a price above rubies. For lovers of laughter, gaiety and comedy, all roads lead to Malibu’s Getty Villa.

The Getty Museum and Troubadour Theater Company’s Haunted House Party, A Roman Comedy plays through Oct. 1 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm at the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Outdoor Classical Theater at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. For more info: (310) 440-7300; www.getty.edu.

Photo: Left to right, Rick Batalla (Slave-Boy/Simo), Misty Cotton (Delphium), Matt Walker (Tranio/Director and Adaptor), Matthew Patrick Davis (Callidamates), Tyler King (Troupe Crew), Joey Kean (Philematium), and Nicholas Cutro (Philolaches) / Craig Schwartz.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Film historian and critic Ed Rampell was named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in cinema at New York's Hunter College. After graduating, he lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, where he reported on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific movement for "20/20," Reuters, AP, Radio Australia, Newsweek, etc. He went on to co-write "The Finger" column for New Times L.A. and has written for many other publications, including Variety, Mother Jones, The Nation, Islands, L.A. Times, L.A. Daily News, Written By, The Progressive, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and AlterNet.

Rampell appears in the 2005 Australian documentary "Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise." He co-authored two books on Pacific Island politics, as well as two film histories: "Made In Paradise, Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas" and "Pearl Harbor in the Movies." Rampell is the author of "Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States." He is a co-founder of the James Agee Cinema Circle and one of L.A.'s most prolific film/theatre/opera reviewers.

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