SEPTEMBER 2021 | Volume 207
Photo by Nancy Caldwell.
It’s not every day you get to see 2nd century AD Roman comedy in Vancouver. United Players artistic director and UBC classics professor Toph Marshall has directed his own translation of Plautus’Amphitruo, a comedy involving gods tricking mortals so that the god-in-chief, Jupiter, can have sex with a married woman. In my half-century of attending theatre in Vancouver, I can’t remember seeing a Roman comedy (or tragedy, for that matter), and I doubt I’ll have the opportunity to see another in my lifetime. So thanks, Toph, and United Players.
Amphitruo is a comedy of confusion. Theban General Amphitruo (Ayush Chhabra) is away at the wars, leaving his pregnant wife Alcumena (Joan Park) at home with their slave, Sosia (Claire deBruyn). While the trickster god Mercurius (Camryn Chew) distracts Sosia by turning himself into a Sosia replica, Jupiter (Matt Loop) has sex with Alcumena by turning himself into an Amphitruo replica.
Sosia is totally confused by seeing a double of himself, and when Amphitruo returns home, the confusion is compounded as Sosia and Alcumena report that Amphitruo (actually Jupiter) has already been there. In the end Alcumena will give birth to twins (one of them Jupiter’s), and Jupiter will reveal all, ensuring that no one’s feelings are too badly hurt.
Marshall’s semi-professional cast makes a valiant attempt at keeping the confusion from confusing us, and making everything funny. But it’s tough sledding in places. Even having read the program notes and the Wikipedia entry in advance, I was sometimes flummoxed. The verse translation isn’t always easy to follow, even in idiomatic 21st century English. (My favourite rhyme: bad luck/poor schmuck.) And the sheer length of some scenes, where a single idea is repeated to exhaustion, can defeat even intense concentration.
That said, much of the production is truly delightful. As Sosia, de Bruyn is quick and light on her feet, especially in the clever songs Marshall has written, with music by Alex Silverman. Loop nails Jupiter’s smug self-satisfaction, and Chhabra makes Amphitruo’s exasperation adorable. The other actors have their moments, too, including Erin Purghart in various roles.The wittiest, most entertaining part of the evening occurs in a section of the play where a chunk of Plautus’ scriptis missing. Marshall has the actors narrate and mime what Plautus might have includedin the lacuna. It’s funny and energetic in ways that the scholarly adherence to Plautus’ original sometimes isn’t. I appreciate learning what the playwright originally wrote, but in the theatre itmight be more important to take whatever liberties are necessary to ensure a sympathetic connection between the contemporary audience and the 2000-year-old play.
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