Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254-184 BC) has been described by classicist and novelist Erich Segal as “the least admired and most imitated” of the ancient Greek and Roman dramatists. His plays, epitomizing Roman popular entertainment, are scripted vaudevilles that lead subversive mirth down a circuitous path to relative safety.
Although behind Plautus’ plays were Greek originals now lost to time, his influence on the history of comedy is foundational. Shakespeare learned his farcical grammar from studying Plautus at school. And modern audiences have laughed at the old Plautine plots redeployed in such Broadway musicals as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “The Boys From Syracuse” (the latter adapted from Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” itself a reworking of Plautus’ “Menaechmi”).
But given that nothing ages faster than comedy, how does one revive Plautus’ works today? Polonius tells Hamlet that “Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light” for the versatile traveling players that have come to the palace, and this hint is picked up by the Troubadour Theater Company in the relentlessly zany production of “Haunted House Party: A Roman Comedy” that opened Wednesday at the Getty Villa’s Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Outdoor Classical Theater.
The text ... is handled not so much with kid gloves as with frisky sock puppets.
The troupe, affectionately known as the Troubies around town, brings to Plautus’ “Mostellaria” (sometimes translated as “The Haunted House”) the madcap playfulness and anachronistic insouciance that have won the company such a loyal following. The text, adapted by director Matt Walker from a translation by Kenneth McLeish and Michael Sargent, is handled not so much with kid gloves as with frisky sock puppets.
This corker of a tale is only hazily sketched here. Philolaches (Nicholas Cutro), a young man who has borrowed money to free a courtesan (played with cross-gendered aplomb by Joey Keane) he has fallen in love with, has torn through his father’s fortune while the old man has been away. When Theopropides (Michael Faulkner) returns, the quick-witted slave Tranio (played with rough-and-tumble verve by Walker) pretends that his young master has abandoned the house after discovering that the place is haunted even though he’s still inside continuing the bacchanalia with his buddies.
The production, though housed a few steps away from the Getty’s ancient treasures, is the opposite of a museum piece. Plautus’ comedy is enlivened with popular tunes (including even a rap number from “Hamilton”) that have been naughtily tweaked for the occasion and sound effects that seem to get louder for gags that go awry.
Topical references, including put-downs of Donald Trump and a Ryan Lochte joke, abound. Sharon McGunigle’s costumes provide cartoon cover for actors who can’t help peeking through their characters. And there’s no shortage of metatheatrical mischief: Walker’s Tranio loves nothing more than calling out an actor for bungling a line or bollixing a routine.
No one is safe from the company’s rowdy mockery. Not Getty Museum director Timothy Potts, whose opening night introduction was disrupted by rambunctious cast members salaciously getting into character. Not audience latecomers, who were serenaded with a couple of choruses of “You’re So Vain.” And not critics, one of whom (yours truly) was pilloried for having neglected the company for so long.
The staging has a billowy flow, one wave of antics following hard upon the next. The action takes place in front of two houses separated by a theatrical caravan, which serves virtually any purpose the company can dream up. Christopher Scott Murillo’s scenic design suggests the street scene of classic Roman comedy while leaving plenty of room for rave-like high jinks. The “party” in the title isn’t superfluous.
The company’s energy is unflagging, but the wit is hit or miss. The general mirthful atmosphere, in which appetites have run amok and all values have been temporarily inverted, is what keeps us laughing. The comic business is well executed but it can seem detached from the play, which becomes a pretext at points for Troubie shtick.
Any excuse to break out into an old hit (even “I Will Survive” is dutifully trotted out) is exploited. Philolaches’ famous speech comparing the rearing of a man to the construction of a house, is cut short for a version of the song “Our House.” Puns and pop culture riffing substitute for dramatic logic.
Walker and his ensemble have elected to be faithful to the spirit of Plautus, but they might have been encouraged to pay a bit more attention to the letter of his work. The characters are treated with such lampooning impunity that the conflicts (between servants and masters, spendthrifts and misers, the old and the young) never have a chance to become dangerous and thus more than superficially humorous.
If there’s any literary merit in Plautus — and surely there must be some for the plays to have pervaded our comic tradition the way they have — it has been sacrificed for a steady gurgling of giggles and chuckles. In truth, the production is so afraid of boring us with the story that it never allows us to get deeply engaged in its twists and turns and potential meanings.
Polonius misses the mark once again: Plautus can be too light. The human lineaments of the comic characters in “Mostellaria,” skin-deep though they may be, are erased in this rollicking mash-up. And the moral of the play — that life can accommodate a certain degree of waywardness and that friendship may prove in the end to be our most valuable asset— gets lost in the silly shuffle.
The Troubadours, however, should be applauded for keeping a distracted 21st century audience tickled for 90 giddy minutes. Reviving ancient comedy is nearly as difficult as resuscitating a mummy, and this refurbished old property engenders an impressive quantity of hilarity.
‘Haunted House Party: A Roman Comedy’
Where: Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Outdoor Classical Theater at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; ends Oct. 1
Information: (310) 440-7300 or www.getty.edu
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
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