Classical scholars have an unusual peeve with Roman Comedy: there is so much of it. Compared, that is, to the dire shortage of the Greek tragedy and comedy that is generally considered much better work. We've got 20 plays by the Roman playwright Plautus, but only 7 tragedies (maybe) by the mighty Aeschylus.
The Greeks of the classical period probed deep into the human predicament, into the fundamental injustices of life and our inadequate mortal coping mechanisms against the iron hand of fate.
Roman comedy, on the other hand, probes deep into fart jokes; the funny side of prostitution; gross sexual allusions and pure slapstick.
But Roman comedy can also make you laugh despite yourself. And the lack of depth makes it relatively easy reading in the original (as I discovered in 3rd year Latin) due to the amusing predictability of much of the repartee. In any case, Latin comedy’s high survival rate probably had much to do with its baser appeal, along with the fact that aspiring medieval clergy members had to copy (and even perform) the texts as Latin language exercises. Which is why we have so many plays by Plautus, as well as the entire (meager) output of his fellow Roman playwright Terence, while far greater Greek tragedy and comedy wound up stuffing mummy cases.
Compared to its elite Attic predecessor, Roman comedy is pure sitcom—but it can be more fun than the Greeks. Which is why it’s so strongly influenced everything from Shakespeare to vintage burlesque to Broadway to generations of TV. Which brings us to the Getty Villa’s latest presentation, “Haunted House Party,” aka the Mostellaria, of (c. 200 BC) Plautus, brought before us by a lively local troupe called the Troubadour Theater Company, whose previous Getty theater lab productions seem to have Cuisinarted pop music with Classic dramaturgy: I for one sure am sorry I missed ABBAmemnon.
But I was glad I got to see “Haunted House Party,” which is also a fizzy cocktail of ancient and new. It takes a little getting used to, the blending of the original text with several hundred local and/or contemporary allusions to everything from Donald Trump to the new iPad to Gladstone’s for Fish. In his program note, Troubadour director/adapter Matt Walker maintains that unlike the Greek prototype, Roman theater was an itinerant operation, working off temporary wooden stages, then piling everything in carts and moving on, much like the Italian Commedia del Arte of 500 years ago.
Certainly, his Mostellaria is on the run every minute. Walker, the lead as the wily slave Tranio, has extra mobility via plastic knee pads on which he slides out of tough situations into even tougher ones. The basic plot gives us a dissolute young gentleman named Philolaches, whose spendthrift habits are abetted by Tranio while Philolaches’ father is away in Egypt. Philolaches’ major expense has been the freedom of a brothel girl named Philematium, whom he loves.
There is a lot of simple dissolution going on involving drinking and alleged orgiastic sex (behind closed doors). Of course the denouement is Philolaches’ father Theopropides’ return. To keep him off the riotous premises, Tronio claims his house has become haunted. As the falsehood collapses, the shtick gets slappier as Philolaches’ loan shark appears, demanding repayment. Finally, all is improbably resolved as the lovers are united and forgiven, somehow, the loan shark is paid, and Tronio is spared crucifixion for his subversive antics.
Through all 90 minutes of this, we’ve had a big production number about every eight minutes, all song and dance and strumming. The jokes sizzle and bomb, alternately, but things keep on moving. There were moments -- of them fairly long -- when the Helzapoppin’ frenzy wore me down until I wanted to raise a white flag.
But in the end, when the dozen actors packed up their stage cart and rolled away, I had laughed a whole lot and so had everyone else. Since its inception, the Getty Villa’s outdoor Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman theater has been mostly devoted to tragedy. In "Haunted House Party," it bore the mask of comedy just as proudly.
All the cast was good. Particularly distinguished were Walker and Beth Kennedy, in the roles of both the downchild slave Grumio and the loan shark; Joey Keane in the drag role of Philamateum; Karole Foreman as Philameteum’s garrulous attendant; and Michael Faulkner as Theopropides. Sharon McGunigle’s costumes were superb. So was Eric Heinly’s music.
"Haunted House Party" runs at the Getty Villa through Oct. 1.