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Photograph by Mark Clark

When in Rome: Michael Temlin stars in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

High Art

Mountain Play stages lively 'Forum'

By Daedalus Howell

EVER SINCE the coastal Miwok cavorted among its crags and crannies, Mt. Tamalpais has been regarded as a nexus of spiritual power. This is why the mountain is perhaps the largest receptacle of illegally deposited cremated human remains in Northern California. It's also where Marin County's Mountain Play Association decided to finally lay that musical dinosaur A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to rest. But wait! To quote Dr. Frankenstein, "It's alive! It's alive!"

Staged at the amphitheater of the Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Theater atop Mt. Tamalpais, the nearly 40-year-old Stephen Sondheim musical eerily comes to life under the apt stage and musical direction of James Dunn and Paul Smith, respectively.

This is not to say the production is stellar, but it certainly is lively. As the show's press kit boasts, it has been "tweaked to tickle contemporary sensibilities." The tweaking works.

Matt Henerson stars as Pseudolus, a slave who can win his freedom by arranging a rendezvous between the coveted virgin Philia (velvet-voiced Susan Zelinsky) and his lovelorn master, Hero (Tyler McKenna). The task would seem easy enough except that Philia has been purchased by muscle-bound gladiator Miles Gloriosus (Matt Kizer). Worse yet, Hero's randy dad, Senex (Louis Parnell), owing to an ill-fated ruse to disguise the maiden, believes she is the new maidservant and wants desperately to get dirty and put her to task.

Henerson's eternally wisecracking Pseudolus is simultaneously reminiscent of both Seinfeld's Jason Alexander and Bugs Bunny (hey, a middlebrow show gets middlebrow accolades). Waggish and conniving, Pseudolus requires boundless energy and precision comic timing--both of which Henerson has to spare. His copious asides do much to update an otherwise corny text. After a cavalcade of courtesans careens across the stage (these women have more curves than the road up Mt. Tam), Pseudolus mutters, "I think she was a dream sequence."

And dreamy they are. The courtesans add much va-va-voom to the show's myriad dance numbers while inducing a handful of cheap, but irresistible, T and A-inspired laughs.

Other standout performances include Norman Hall's garrulous Marcus Lycus, the neighborhood flesh peddler and sleazeball decked out in Elvis' Vegas-era lambchops. Likewise, Kizer's entrance as Miles Gloriosus must be a first on North Bay stages--he rumbles to the stage in a fire-engine-red jeep.

Costume designer Pat Polen garbs most of the male cast in what can be construed as the Star Trek version of Greek attire (the wildly printed tunics and robes won't do for the women, however, whose wardrobe is equal parts belly dancer, dominatrix, and Xena, Warrior Princess). Others, like Ian Swift's hilarious, wizened, and bearded Erronius, look as if they wafted up the mountain from Stinson Beach, having disappeared into an LSD vortex 30 years ago.

A word to the wise: Arrive early or you'll be watching the show from behind a grove of oak trees. Unless you've sold your soul to Satan, forget about parking anywhere near the amphitheater (shuttle buses from Mill Valley are offered free of charge). Be sure to bring sunscreen, a butt pad, a picnic lunch, and wine. These creature comforts go far to make A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum more enjoyable, particularly the wine, which when consumed in quantity makes the show funnier.


The Mountain Play Association's production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum plays June 3-4, 11, and 18 at 1 p.m. $11-$22. Information about shuttle buses and directions to the amphitheater are included with ticket orders. For details, call 510/601-8932.

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From the June 1-7, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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