Washington's "Forum" fires comedy like a Roman Candle

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” despite its simplistic plot, familiar songs, broad characterizations, and single-set format, is an incredibly difficult show to produce well with high school students. It is, however, well suited for Washington High School in Fremont.

The entrance of Miles Gloriosus (Chris Labarbera) and the cast of "Forum"
What makes “Forum” difficult? First, the script depends on expert comic timing that the original stars honed after years on the Vaudeville stage. The performers must have mastery of early twentieth-century comic styles, they must be verbally agile and physically strong enough to handle Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s fast-paced, pun-filled book, be confident enough to improvise directly with audience members, and sing the notoriously difficult music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. It’s a tall order in what looks like a simple musical.

And that brings us to Washington High School. “Forum” is, without a doubt, a very male-centric show, and right now, Matt Ballin’s boys are particularly strong. “Forum,” which is loosely based on a few of the plays of the Roman playwright Plautus, revolves around the story of Pseudolus (Andre Vernot), a clever Roman slave who craves his freedom, and Hero (Griffin Sloves), the young master who has fallen in love with a courtesan (Hannah Stovall, who shares the role with Tiffany Morales) from the house of ill repute, owned by procurer Marcus Lycus (played by Jace Guerrero) next door.  Hero promises Pseudolus his freedom if he can win the girl for him. Naturally, there are complications: the courtesan girl Philia has been promised by to the acclaimed Roman soldier Miles Gloriosus, played by Chris Labarbara, who shares the role, and another, with Genesis Ednalino.)

To carry out his elaborate plan, Psuedolus must work around Hero’s father Senex (played deliciously by Joshua Laquian) who’s going through a mid-life crisis of his own and has eyes for Philia), the head slave Hysterium (Andrew Del Fierro, who also has an assistant director credit) and Hero’s mother Domina, finely voiced by Marissa Madan.

What follows is a parade of slapstick comedy, mistaken identities, cross-dressing, double-entendres, puns, and door-slamming farce that never slows down its energy for more than two hours, and leaves the audience howling.  The audience was made up of mostly high school students when I saw the show, students who were experiencing “Forum” for the first time. The kids were literally rolling in the aisles.

Jace Guerrero as Marcus Lycus and three of his courtesans
Andre Vernot is a capable Pseudolus with a nice sense of timing and a strong physical presence.  “Forum” is really Pseudolus’ show, and he carries it well. He’s utterly unafraid to break the fourth wall and walk directly into the audience, involving unsuspecting audience members into the action. As Hysterium, Andrew Del Fierro throws himself into the role wholeheartedly. “Forum” marks Del Fierro’s first musical, and it’s only his third show.  He’s as good as any of the more experienced performers at other high schools, and he should absolutely continue in theatre arts—he’s a natural.

 Jace Guerrero’s Marcus Lycus is a tamer version of the role suitable for high school, and that gives him the opportunity to focus on his excellent timing and delivery.  As Hero, Griffin Sloves, who wears his glasses on stage as the original cast members did to reinforce that the musical is not to be taken too literally, is adorable. He’s at his best in his duet “Impossible” with Joshua Laquian’s Senex.  Rounding out the cast is Nick Garibay as Erronius, the old man in search of his two children who were stolen by pirates. An often-overlooked role, Garibay’s strong presence keeps him always in mind.

Matt Ballin’s mighty male actors are well-trained, talented actors who have exceptional diction and stage presence. Their comedy outshines the musical aspect of this production, which occasionally strays off course. As I mentioned at the top of this article, “Forum” is musically difficult, and for musical theatre beginners to take on Sondheim at all is very brave.

In “Forum,” girls have less to do. It could not have escaped the minds of the young women in this production that the script treats all females as objects to be lusted after or reviled. However, girls can be just as funny as boys, and if the young women who play the Courtesans embrace the burlesque spirit of the show, they’ll have a lot more fun onstage—and upstage the boys in this musical battle of the sexes.  The courtesans are played by Destiny Nguyen, Kimberly Henderson, AnnaMarie Goodson, Melanie Campbell, and Talia Dubois.

Andrew Del Fierro, left, as Hysterium, Joshua Laquian, in blue, as Senex, and
Andrew Vernot, kneeling, as Pseudolus
Director Matt Ballin cast Chris Labarbera and Genesis Ednalino to alternate between playing the swaggering braggart Miles Gloriousus and Gymnasia, the sixth courtesan. I suspect these two large, muscular boys take no guff at all for their campy drag turns on stage, and it gives them a chance to see this show from the girls’ perspective.

This production of “Forum” is not as bawdy as one who knows the show would expect, but as a farce, it’s exceptional. It absolutely shines in its very well-directed and performed chase scenes. Helping them all are the three Proteans, characters who take on many roles. In this production, Ballin has twins Jenna and Ryan Frisbey, and freshman Connor McCage.  These three have the most freedom of all of the cast members to improvise and play on stage, and they are clearly having fun. 

Even if you’ve never seen a production of “Forum,” you’ll enjoy this version and these performers—they’ll make you scream with laughter. 
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