Comedy has changed a lot over the centuries but there are some surefire elements of comedy that have always made audiences laugh: mistaken identity, disguise, trickery and schemes, and miraculous solutions leading to a “happy ending.” These elements are present in the comedies of the Roman playwright Plautus, whose works have given us the template for comedies over the centuries (the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is based on situations from some of his plays).
Tug of War, playing at the Getty Villa, is an adaptation of the Plautus comedy Rudens, directed by Meryl Friedman and written by Amy Richlin. Like A Funny Thing, it’s a musical, silly, cartoon-like and acted as broadly as possible by its small but versatile cast. And although the adaptation contains a sprinkling of topical jokes, it retains the setting and style of a Roman comedy.
The play takes place on the beach of a coastal town called Cyrene (notable, according to the program notes, for its supply of a substance used as a contraceptive!). In a musical prologue, Arcturus (Curtis C.), a star who comes to Earth in human guise to spy on Earthlings, sings to us about the play’s situations. A nobleman, Valerus (also played by Curtis C.), is searching for his lost daughter who was kidnapped at birth. His slave Scupus (Peter Van Norden) is tired of always being at his master’s beck and call. Local pimp Lupus Del Mar (Antoine Reynaldo Diel) is trying to sell two young ladies, the lissome Liploca (Cortney Wright) and the slightly geeky Vinita (Bob Beuth), to the rich but clueless Bigbuxo (Albert Meijer). With his henchman Charmides (Jill C. Klein), he’s also trying to sell some “hempus.” And Deltoidus (Steve Totland), the slave of Bigbuxo, scoots around, trying to narrate the tale for the audience while also trying to tie up all the loose ends and get everyone’s problems sorted out.
Follow all that? It probably doesn’t matter much – this is lighthearted fare. It unfolds like a series of comedy skits, punctuated by the musical numbers. Almost every character has a big number, and each song is appropriate to the character’s over-exaggerated ethnic identity. While the Romans enjoyed comic stereotypes based on the ethnic groups of the Mediterranean world, Tug of War’s broad but harmless caricatures include Bigbuxo’s “Latin Lover” number, Liploca’s bluesy show-stopper “I Need A Man,” and Scupus’s klezmer-flavored “I Have a Trunk.”
There are also some improvised moments with audience members which undoubtedly vary from one performance to the next. Totland excels at this. At the performance attended by this reviewer, he copped some cookies from an audience member and commented, “I’ve never had Getty cookies before!”
The cast members are all great, but special mention must be made of Meijer’s hilarious turn as Bigbuxo (the man can dance, too), Curtis C’s marvelous singing, especially in the opening number, and Beauth’s very classically “correct” performance as a female character, Vinita, whom he makes believably female without resorting to campy drag effects. For that matter, Klein plays both a male character, the whining Charmides, and a female temple priestess who comes on like Marjorie Main.
The Getty Villa’s amphitheatre is also classically correct, made up of stone steps, equipped with cushions for a more modern touch. The Getty’s restaurant sells boxed dinners that can be enjoyed during the performance (including those cookies), and blankets are also on sale if it gets chilly. Hopefully, coming seasons will offer productions earlier in the summer.
Tug of War, 8 p.m., tickets $30-$35, Thursdays-Saturdays through September 29, The Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades, 310.440.7300.