September 13, 2001

Comic Relief

Print More

by Nate Brown

staff writer

Based on three plays written by the Roman playwright Plautus over 2,000 years ago, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum may have seemed like an unlikely candidate for a Broadway success when it debuted nearly 40 years ago. However, with five Tony Awards and a plethora of subsequent productions under its belt, this quirky Stephen Sondheim farce has found its way to Cornell, courtesy of the Brand X Theater Company.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is the story of a love-struck adolescent named Hero (played by director Johnny Merrill, Grad) and his smartmouthed, quick-witted slave, Pseudolus (portrayed by Samuel Knowlton ’02).

As Hero’s parents are leaving Rome early in the play, they command Pseudolus to keep an eye on their son Hero, who has fallen in love with a woman residing in the brothel next door. Hero, determined to meet this mysterious woman who he’s only seen through the window, strikes a deal with the cunning Pseudolus. In exchange for the girl, Hero agrees to free Pseudolus.

Unfortunately, the fair and virginal courtesan named Philia (played by Peggy Powers, ’03) has been sold off to a military captain. To hold up his end of the bargain with Hero, Pseudolus determines not to let the Captain and the young woman wed.

The ensuing scenes are filled with mistaken identities, complex schemes, tawdry dance numbers, and a series of musical numbers from a score that Merrill calls “One of the best books of any Broadway show.”

The show’s Associate Producer, Brand X President Emily Apsell ’02, describes the show as “A love story that’s almost secondary to the little comic nuances of the actors.” This production marks Apsell’s sixth show with Brand X, and it has gone through numerous trials on its way to the Risley stage. However, Apsell is quick to note that despite the difficulties, “The cast and crew have really come together in the past two weeks.”

Brand X had originally slated this Broadway classic for production last April, but as Director Johnny Merrill explains, “Getting a [performance] space was impossible.” Due to the delay, the cast of the show was faced with an extremely difficult situation: In order to see the show through to closing night, they would have to rehearse the material up until summer break started and then, pick up where they left off this fall.

That’s exactly what this ensemble of 15 did, coming back just in time to orchestrate the music, set the lights, paint the sets, and squeeze in as many rehearsals as time would allow. “Luckily,” said Merrill, “the entire cast was returning … nobody went to study abroad and nobody graduated.”

When asked if the lack of time back prior to the show’s opening night had compromised the show’s quality, Merrill simply smiled and said, “This was a very unique situation and I don’t think any other cast, amateur or professional, could have pulled it off.”

This production is unique in yet another way. Among a cast of Cornell students is Professor Pete Weatherby, English. “This is the first show I’ve been associated with since the eighth grade,” he said. “I’m amazed by the energy and talent these students have displayed while performing in this show.”

As a further compliment to his fellow actors, Weatherby added, “I’ve been a department chairman, and I wish my department worked as well together as these students do.”

The production serves as a testament to what a little hard work, a lot of elbow grease, a great script, and a looming deadline can get accomplished. The results are, well, nothing less than hilarious. There’s a funny thing happening at Risley this weekend, so take Pseudolus’ advice: “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!”

Archived article by Nate Brown