For a long time, there is virtually nothing entertaining in this production of the comedy Amphitruo by the ancient Roman writer Plautus (254-184 BC). Then, in a kind of miracle, it gets very funny — and more or less stays that way.
In the script, the god Jupiter lusts after the mortal woman Alcumena, so he takes on the likeness of her husband, the general Amphitruo, and has sex with Alcumena while Amphitruo is away at war. Jupiter also transforms his son Mercurius into a lookalike of Amphitruo’s slave Sosia. So we have two pairs of doubles running around. And the real Amphitruo and Sosia are due home any minute, so we know there are going to be complications.
But it takes forever for things to get off the ground. My notebook is filled with entries like “no reality base” and “still no action”. In a prologue that feels endless, Mercurius sets things up in far more detail than we need, and then, when the real Sosia shows up to tell Alcumena that her husband is on his way, Mercurius (disguised as Sosia) meets him, freaks him out by looking just like him, and shoos him away so that Jupiter can keep screwing Alcumena. This scene also goes on and on — and it’s not like we’re invested in either the real Sosia or the fake one, so who cares?
Toph Marshall, who directed this production, also translated the script. Later in the action, the text is missing a few pages and Marshall handles that wittily. I wish he’d show similar freedom in adaptation off the top. And all of that business about beating slaves? Not hilarious in the twenty-first century.
I’m not blaming the actors for any of this and I’m not blaming Marshall as a director, either. Camryn Chew and Claire deByrun are working their butts off as Mercurius and Sosia. They make crystal-clear sense of the difficult text and they play the comedy with confidence and charm; the script simply doesn’t support them at this point.
This review is about to take a sharp turn into the positive.
The confidence I just mentioned extends to everybody in the cast — and that’s down to Marshall as a director. There are inventive bits of business — including an ongoing gag in which all of the characters say “Creak” and “Slam” when they mime walking through a non-existent door, for instance — and I’d bet real money that this playfulness emerged from a happy rehearsal period.
When the plot finally rises up to meet the production’s level of confidence and invention, the whole shebang starts to pay off. The trigger is the return of the real Amphitruo: all of a sudden, there’s action and the stakes are high. Alcumena is baffled by Amphitruo’s claim that he’s just come home; as far as she’s concerned, she’s just spent the night with him. But, when she tells Amphitruo that, he accuses her of being wanton. Accusations fly, divorce is in the air, Alcumena’s reputation might be ruined — and nobody can figure out what’s going on.
The biggest delight in all of this is Ayush Chhabra’s turn as Amphitruo. Chhabra’s deadpan delivery barely conceals roiling emotions that escape only in the occasional vocal squeak or sudden turn of the head. Chhabra gets how to perform this kind of comedy and he had me rolling.
There’s still the occasional little blip in which Plautus can’t resist telling us what’s going to happen, as opposed to simply letting it happen, but it’s basically smooth sailing from this point on.
The songs — yes, there are songs — are pleasingly patter-y and well-supported by composer Alex Silverman’s cantering rhythms. And director Marshall has taken a free hand with casting. Joan Park who plays Alcumena is a senior actor, for instance, while Chhabra (Amphitruo) is decades younger: all of this feels enjoyably unfettered and it works just fine.
I’m so glad this Amphitruo saved itself.
AMPHITRUO By Plautus. Translated by Toph Marshall. Directed by Toph Marshall. A United Players production at the Jericho Arts Centre on Friday, September 17. Continues until October 3. Tickets
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