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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Lion in Winter

By Roger McBain, Evansville Courier & Press
March 17, 2011

Repertory Project tackles musical, drama in 'Funny Thing' and 'Lion in Winter'

From "Animal House" to "The Hangover" to "Hot Tub Time Machine," there's nothing particularly modern about raunchy comedies revolving around sex, inebriates and bathroom humor, says Eric Altheide.

You can trace much of it back a couple thousand years to Rome, where they invented the toga party.

That's the way-back story behind "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," the raunchy, vulgar, slapstick musical Altheide is directing at the University of Southern Indiana.

The musical, by Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart and Stephen Sondheim, draws from farces presented 2,000 years ago by the Roman playwright Plautus, explained Altheide, who teaches theater at USI.

The courtesans, pimps, intoxicants and galloping libidos that fuel this dizzy comedy about the slave Pseudolus' scheme to leverage lust to win his freedom, were lures to hold fickle audiences with short attention spans and lots of lurid entertainment options, from bear baiting to gladiators hacking at one another in the Coliseum.

"To sell tickets, they kept plays really raunchy, appealing to the lowest common denominator," Altheide said.

He has been helping his cast members tap into their inner Roman for tonight's opening of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," launching this year's Repertory Project collaboration with New Harmony Theatre.

The project, presented each year since 2007, brings Actors Equity professionals to work with USI junior and senior theater students in a pair of shows which play on an alternating schedule.

This musical will play counterpoint to James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter," directed by Elliot Wasserman, the chairman of USI's Department of Performing Arts. "The Lion in Winter" featuring Equity actors Richard Marlatt and Licia Watson as an aging King Henry II and his wife Eleanor opens Saturday on Mallette's stage. The play looks at the decline of a great king to explore "the psychological narrative of a man losing his powers," Wasserman said.

Marlatt, a professional player from Chicago who's performed across the country, and Watson, a veteran professional based in Kansas City, Mo., will make a comical pairing in "A Funny Thing" as Senex and Dominus, Romans caught up in the confusion of Pseudolus' breathless plotting.

The veterans can play roles difficult for 18 and 19-year-olds to pull off. For students, the Repertory Project offers the chance to work with professional actors as well as with the show's stage manager, Liz Reddick, an Equity member from New York with 25 years of professional experience.

And, while none of the students play in both productions, they all have played backstage roles, building costumes, building and painting sets, working on props, Altheide said.

"They're part of the entire process."

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