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Tickling ancient funny bones

Times Staff Writer

As Meryl Friedman plowed through ancient comedy’s greatest hits, looking for 21st century AD laughs in 3rd century BC material, she began to wonder whether funny things really did happen on the way to the Forum.

This was not what the veteran stage director, who has made a cottage industry of adapting literary texts into play-able form, was hoping for as she plumbed an assortment of translations. She mulled over Menander, pondered Plautus and interrogated Terence, probing for a play that could make laughter ring from the stone tiers of the outdoor theater at the Getty Villa near Malibu -- where she was engaged to mount the annual, summer’s-end production. The one she eventually chose, “Tug of War,” adapted from Plautus, began previews this week.

After last September’s well-received inaugural show, Euripides’ “Hippolytos,” Villa officials were looking for balance: tragedy last summer, so comedy tonight -- preferably a Roman one. But how to shake the dust from 2,200-year-old jokes?

“There were moments, going through it all, where I was like, ‘Oh, my, they’re all so much the same,’ ” Friedman said, laughing. The play that stood out as different, if not self-evidently sidesplitting, was “Rudens,” Plautus’ tale of cheeky slaves trying to get the better of their presumed betters, and presumed virgins trying to avoid having to turn tricks for a greedy pimp. It was set beside the sea, at a shrine to Venus, the goddess of love. That, Friedman thought as she turned pages at home in Van Nuys, could yield color and provide a canvas she could spray with silliness and song. Maybe she could kindle something akin to the bedazzlement she had felt as a girl watching Florence Henderson take a shower onstage at Lincoln Center, washing that man right out of her hair in a 1967 production of “South Pacific.”

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Along with the neighborhood talent shows Friedman organized while growing up in New York, “South Pacific” and other musicals she saw with her parents had won her to the theater for keeps. But never had she suspected that any ancient play would be the ticket to the most prominent gig of her career.

For many years, Friedman had been a linchpin of the small-theater scene in Chicago, where, in 1982, she was one of the handful of recent Northwestern University grads who started the Lifeline Theatre, aiming to stay busy while auditioning for jobs on bigger stages. Within a few years, Lifeline had turned into a job in itself. With Friedman as producing director, the company, which included Steven Totland, the husband she’d met as a college sophomore, found a niche adapting stories not originally written for the stage.

As writer, director or both, Friedman re-imagined novels such as Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” Mark Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness.” Alongside the adult fare, she launched a successful children’s series, adapting many of the titles herself.

Christina Calvit, a Chicago writer and Lifeline company member, came to appreciate Friedman’s imaginative reach as they collaborated. Especially vivid, she says, was the set Friedman ordered for “Jane Eyre,” capable of collapsing every night around a central beam to enact the destruction of Thornfield, the story’s bleak Gothic manor. In the first preview, Calvit recalled, the rigging came down only part of the way, leaving a beam and curtains dangling.

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“Meryl looked at me and said, ‘That’s incredibly dangerous to actors, I’ve got to stop the show.’ She got on stage, ripped those curtains down, and the show went on. That was a moment of shining glory. She sees a problem, she takes care of it.”

In 1998, Friedman came west to run the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, hired by its founder, Hollywood producer-director Garry Marshall.. She and Totland had decided they needed a change, figuring they’d land in New York or San Francisco. Then Marshall, a boyhood friend of Friedman’s father, called saying he needed an experienced theater pro to be executive producer at the 130-seat Falcon, which he’d opened in 1997.

“L.A. is not a place we had ever thought we would come to,” because film and television weren’t high on their agenda, Friedman recalls. “But we thought it was wacky enough that we should do it.”

When she left Lifeline, Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune lamented, “This talented artist’s defection is a significant loss.”

After 2 1/2 years at the Falcon, Friedman decided that, as far as producing plays in small theaters went, she’d had her fill. “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life worrying about how to market shows.” Marshall points to the children’s theater series Friedman created at the Falcon as “a great legacy” and credits her with providing a steady hand during the theater’s formative days. “She’s what we needed to get us going.”

The chance to work steadily with children drew Friedman, who has none of her own, to her current job as executive director of the Virginia Avenue Project in Santa Monica. The after-school theater program teams youngsters from working poor families with artist mentors, aiming not to mold them into thespians but to help them develop broader academic and life skills.

Friedman kept her chops up by continuing to direct in L.A.'s small theaters. Then she got an invitation from Ralph Flores, a former Lifeline member. Flores is now the Getty’s senior project coordinator, a job that includes producing the ancient theater program that’s unique in the English-speaking world.

Friedman adapted and directed Aristophanes’ comedy “The Wasps” early in 2006, inaugurating the ongoing experimental workshop series in the Villa’s 250-seat indoor auditorium. It went well, and she was chosen to direct this summer on the 450-seat main stage.

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Working from a word-for-word translation in slangy contemporary English that the Getty commissioned from Amy Richlin, a classics professor at UCLA, Friedman took extreme liberties with “Rudens,” crafting scenes and plot strands that Plautus would not recognize. She readily admits that playgoers eager to savor Roman comedy as the Romans experienced it won’t get it from this show, although she’s tried to be true to the original form and spirit by preserving such Roman conventions as breaks in the storytelling, in which actors step out of character and start riffing with each other and the audience.

Friedman dispensed with the voluminous wordplay and repetition in Plautus’ text. She sandwiched the action with rousing, gospel-style songs; in other scenes, characters belt the blues, dance the tango or cavort to klezmer music -- with, as Friedman says, “not a toga in sight.” While she has directed children’s theater at Lincoln Center and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, “Tug of War” figures to be Friedman’s highest-profile show to date. And Plautus conceivably could be a drawing card for scouts looking to develop new musicals for Broadway and regional stages: His stories and characters were the basis for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the 1962 hit.

At 48, Friedman figures it’s a bit late to entertain fantasies of riding an old vehicle to a new start as a roving director. “A long time ago, I made the choice. I have a home, a husband and a dog, and I’m very much about establishing roots and not traveling around. It’s just not me.”

For her, success will be drowning in laughter any wary preconceptions audiences may bring to Plautus. She’s trying to fill “Tug of War” with “a sense of whimsy and joy, and performers and musicians having a good time that’s infectious. It’s a caper, a romp, a confection, an opportunity for 450 people to sit together and laugh for 90 minutes and feel good before we have to go back to the traffic.”

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mike.boehm@latimes.com

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‘Tug of War’

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Where: Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; in previews, opens Thursday

Ends: Sept. 29

Price: $35

Contact: (310) 440-7300 or www.getty.edu


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