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'Forum' delights with comic excess

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is many things. It's a farce based on the work of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus. It's the hit musical (with a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart) that introduced Stephen Sondheim as both a composer and lyricist to a wider audience. And it's a send-up of the grandiose vision of ancient Rome popularized by those sword-and-sandals epics of 1940s and '50s Hollywood.

To the list now can be added this: The show is the funniest thing yet to hit the boards at one of downtown Medford's best-kept secrets — unique, friendly little Randall Theatre, where it will play for the next month.

From the first scene, with a prologue delivered by a character named Prologus, to the final curtain (after the aptly yclept "Finale Ultimo"), "A Funny Thing" mixes slapstick, sex, farce, bawdy jokes, sex, dumb puns, mistaken identities, sex and Vaudeville bits and smart — if not particularly memorable — Sondheim songs into an irreverent homage to everybody's poster-child example of a decadent society.

The show's best-known song, "Comedy Tonight," not only kicks off the zaniness, it promises straight up that it will have us laughing like loons — a boast the show gleefully makes good on for the next two-and-a-half hours, once Prologus turns into Pseudolus, the clever slave who drives the plot.

Pseudolus (the very funny Jon Oles) wants his freedom. To get it, he concocts a plan to help his lovesick young master, Hero (Adam Carlisle), woo and win the girl next door, Philia (Victoria Skinner), a beautiful but dumb virgin living in a house of courtesans.

Hero lives with his aging, henpecked but still lecherous father, Senex (David Eisenberg), along with his domineering mother, Dominia (Cathy Beemer), and several slaves, including the sly Pseudolus and the frantic Hysterium (Michael J. Serface).

Adjacent to Senex's house on one side is the brothel of Marcus Lycus (Brad Zentgraf), who buys and sells beautiful young women. On the other side lives the elderly Erronius (the redoubtable Grant Shepard, funny once again), who is off on a quest for his long-lost children, who were kidnapped by pirates(!), but who keeps showing up to deliver deadpan lines that crack up the house.

Rather than representing the play's three buildings in the ordered, classical style associated with ancient Rome, Russell Medeiros's eye-candy set pops with bright colors and an almost cartoon-like esthetic, a visual clue to the play's gleefully off-center view of Roman society (which also looks a lot like our own).

The set must function to enable with precision the door-slamming that is a hallmark of low farce. It came off without a hitch at the Friday night opening. Medeiros also plays a eunuch who "will always be a eunuch."

When Senex and Domina go on a trip, they leave Pseudolus in charge of Hero, who confesses to the slave his love for the beautiful Philia, who is somehow still an innocent although she lives in the house of the slimy, flesh-peddling Lycus. Pseudolus and Hero make a deal: The slave will help the master win Philia's love and, in exchange, he will win his freedom.

But it soon turns out that Philia has been sold to the warrior Miles Gloriosus (Jesse Larson, playing a cross between Spartacus and Chuck Norris). When Philia insists that she must honor her purchase by Miles Gloriosus, Pseudolus tells her to wait ("that's what virgins do best, isn't it?") inside while he comes up with a scheme involving some elaborate lies and a sleeping potion.

And so on. Outlandish characters doing dumb things in hilarious situations. Funny line after funny line, seemingly out of nowhere, often involving sight gags. The formidable but clueless Dominia tells a slave who is carrying a sculpture of her to "carry my bust with pride." The characters' names alone are guffaw worthy: Gymnasia, Vibrata, Panacea.

Some of these characters are types familiar to us through the Commedia dell' arte. But their dramatic DNA predates that by many centuries. These characters are Shevelove and Gelbart's take on the spiritual ancestors of Arlecchino, Pantalone, Il Capitano and their kin.

As anybody who's been around the theater will tell you, farce must be intricately crafted and timed just so if it's to work. Kudos go to director Toni Holley for getting it all together.

The costumes are fun, the choreography cleverly employs lots of actors in a small space, and the singing (on tunes such as "I'm Calm," "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" and, of course, "Comedy Tonight") is stronger than what you expect in community theater. There were a few opening-night wobbles, but not enough to dull the play's knife-edge giddiness.

The cast is strong throughout (where does Randall Artistic Director Robin Downward find all these capable, singing, dancing actors?), but the center of effort in all the comedic heavy lifting is Pseudolus. And the hard-working Oles plays him with a combination of relish and polish not unlike that of Zero Mostel, who played the part on Broadway. Oles has been part of the regional theater scene for several years, but this is his best work to date. It couldn't have come along for a better cause.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.