Laughing loud at the Getty Villa (a review)
“Haunted House Party: A Roman Comedy”
by Bondo Wyszpolski
When does something go from being an annual event to being a tradition, which people look forward to year after year? When the first theatrical production of ancient Greek and Roman plays was presented at the Getty Villa’s outdoor amphitheater it seemed like a novelty at the time, but now it’s something we can look forward to every September as summer wanes. The newest addition, the eleventh play, is an adaptation by Matt Walker and the Troubadour Theater Company of “Mostellaria,” by Titus Maccius Plautus, a Roman who apparently worked as a grindstone-turner and wrote plays in his spare time.
“Mostellaria” (probably written between 218 and 201 B.C) sounds like a mosquito infestation, but apparently translates to “Haunted House.” For the current rendition it’s being called “Haunted House Party: A Roman Comedy,” and if you’re guessing bacchanalian frat parties, wine, women and song, then we’re both on the right track.
While his father Theopropides (Michael Faulkner) is out of town, young Philolaches (Nicholas Cutro) decides to live it up a little. Okay, a lot. While cavorting at the local strip joint he espies a young woman, Philematium (Joey Keene), and decides to buy her freedom. I’m not sure what credit card he pays or plays with, but since the young lady is a slave we can assume it’s the master card.
Naturally, Philolaches has lots of friends all too happy to help him squander his father’s money, Callidamates (Matthew Patrick Davis) being one good (meaning bad) example. And of course there are the hot babes (Leah Sprecher as Pinacium and Suzanne Narbonne as Erotium) to distract the boys, both on stage and in the audience.
The L.A.-based ensemble, which is often referred to as the Troubies, has been around for 20 years and finds its inspiration in commedia dell’arte and slapstick. “Haunted House Party” plays like a bawdy musical sitcom, and we’re only a couple of minutes into it when the company breaks into a song-and-dance version of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House,” with of course a few tweaks along the way, like tossing in “party” after the word “house.”
That won’t be the last musical number either. You’ll hear Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” the Police’s “Roxanne,” and many others, including Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party,” in which the costumes and choreography are a real hoot.
With Philolaches and his pals coming from the upper crust of Roman society, we have numerous slaves and attendants to add color, character, and subplot. Matt Walker (who not only adapted the work but directs it as well) plays Tranio, a slave who’s good at working both sides; Beth Kennedy as Grumio, a slave, and also Mr. Moneygrub, a banker; Karole Foreman as Scapha, who attends to Philematium; Misty Cotton as Callidamates’ escort Delphium; and Rick Batella as both a slave boy and as Timo, an elderly next door neighbor.
The troupe, with additional roots in improv comedy, isn’t afraid to address the audience or heckle stragglers whose chariots broke down on the 405 and arrived late. There’s no fourth wall here; there’s not even a first, second, or third wall. Additionally, the company has mixed topical humor (Ryan Lochte’s misadventures in Rio; Trump’s tax returns) into the mix, and when a cast member fumbles a line or an airplane flies down the coast, they’re ready for that as well. It’s a very impressive form of thinking on your feet.
The Troubies are following the spirit rather than the letter, but we do wonder how close or far afield they’re going with this. While Plautus may not be a household name, Stephen Sondheim’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is based on one of his plays, and both of these works share a kind of Marx Brothers zaniness. It is, perhaps not too surprisingly in this case, a zaniness with zingers that don’t always explode. But those that do are so good that we indulge them in their misfires.
Reminiscent of “Peace,” the Aristophanes play which Culture Clash presented at the Villa a few seasons back, “Haunted House Party” has loads of risque humor and is vastly entertaining although with a bit of a slowdown towards the end. But that’s when father unexpectedly returns and loose ends need to be tied. One feels that the Troubies would rather have kept them untied, but then that would have meant rewriting rather than revisiting a classic work.
Haunted House Party: A Roman Comedy is being performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. in the outdoor theater at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy., Pacific Palisades. Tickets, $40 on Thursday ($36 seniors, students), $42 on Friday, and $45 on Saturday. Closes Saturday, Oct. 1. Dinner options available, and one should consider them because while there may be great shows on Broadway in New York, you won’t find a setting like this on the East Coast. Meanwhile, plans are already underway for next season’s “Iphigenia at Aulis,” by Euripides. (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu. ER