Forum, which follows Roman slave Pseudolus on his scheming quest to earn his freedom, features two female supporting characters, Domina (yes, a domineering housewife) and Philia (a comely, if vacuous pretty young thing). But mainly the musical is a comedic boys' club where men ogle the courtesans and avoid their nagging wives.
So why deny the ladies their turn in this pretty little picture? Stone wanted to take the musical back to its roots: the Roman comedies of Plautus. For Stone, she sees her Forum as told by "a troupe of actors in Plautus’ Rome performing the show, hence the all-male thing. I’m intrigued by the idea of this story, which has been so lovingly crafted in honor of Plautus’ comedies, being performed in the way that his comedies would have been," Stone explained.
Sondheim gave his blessing "once he was assured that it wasn’t going to be mere camp," Stone said. But this is Forum, not La Cage, so will Stone take the "drag" aspect seriously, or play it for broad (pardon the pun) vaudevillian comedy? Stone states, "I'm not as interested in seeing guys in makeup and wigs and watching them bevel their ankles. I don’t think that’s the point. I’m more interested in seeing them bring these characters to life than seeing a lot of female affectation… I want to keep it as simple as possible and let the acting speak for itself."
One of Forum's most tense comedic moments (spoiler alert) comes in the case of mistaken identity when a male slave ends up dressed as the young female love interest and is almost burned on a funeral pyre. In previous productions of the musical, audiences have the pleasure of seeing the beautiful maiden and then the image of a man schlepping across the stage in a dress as her stand in… so how did Stone address this gem of a moment when the dichotomy may not be as bold?
"It's the first thing I thought of when I came up with this hairbrained scheme," Stone confessed. "I have a number of solutions that I want to play with in rehearsal. Not the least being - just play it. There is a difference between a male actor playing a woman and a male actor playing a man playing a woman badly… I’m excited by the possibilities that I have brewing and am looking forward to hammering it out in rehearsal."
The production also poses another possible challenge for Stone. She'll be directing her husband, Tony Award nominee Christopher Fitzgerald as Pseudolus. "We’ve set down a couple of ground rules for each other for this one, but I’m really looking forward to it," Stone said. "I’m very lucky to have such a talented guy leading the company, and it’s a joy to collaborate with him."
Speaking of her company, the cast of Forum boasts an impressive list of comedic actors. Josh Grisetti will play Hysterium, with Jeremy Shamos doubling as Senex/Vibrata, Chivas Michael as Domina/Panacea, David Costibile as Marcus Lycus, Bryce Pinkham as Hero, David Turner as Philia, Kevin Cahoon as Erronious/Tintinabula and Graham Rowat as Miles Gloriosus. Paul Castree and Jon Patrick Walker will double as Proteans and Geminae Twins, with fellow Proteans Adam Lerman and Zackary Grady.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum will play Williamstown June 30-July 11. Visit WilliamstownTheatreFestival.