The plays of Plautus are widely and incorrectly thought to be a laugh riot on the strength of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which actually incorporates only one line and a few situations from the ancient Roman scribe. The Getty Villa’s outdoor version of “Rudens” (“Rope”), retitled “Tug of War,” makes some of the right moves by arming an energetic young company with a jolly original score. Still, a pleasant night out falls short of full satisfaction because windy, dreary Plautus is too much in evidence. They’ve retained just enough “Rudens” to hang themselves.
On Jeff Webster’s polished wooden disk, colorfully clad by Ellen McCartney in ragtag like a “Godspell” troupe, helmer Meryl Friedman’s eight thesps act out a rude tale of two virgins who try to get free of their pimp so as to marry a randy nobleman and his rascally servant, abetted by other rogues and a high priestess. One would like to say, “Oh, the plot doesn’t matter, it’s the fun of it,” but Plautus makes that impossible, as characters constantly tell us what they’re about to do, what they’re currently doing and what they’ve just done as if performing for that guy in “Memento” with the short-term memory disorder.
Numerous mirthless stretches go by as everyone runs around purposelessly until random coincidences, like the discovery of a sunken chest, bring the story to an arbitrary conclusion. Actors frequently break out of character to point out the deadliness of the text, but that doesn’t make it any more palatable.
Things perk up whenever Friedman and company set the script aside, which thankfully is often. She may not be much of a joke writer (the heart sinks at wheezes about Stuart Smalley and he-smoked-but-didn’t-inhale), but comic songs in a variety of styles from gospel to tango demonstrate she’s a nifty tunesmith and lyricist, and the company sings and dances with appealing gusto to the skillful accompaniment of a live guitar, accordion and bass clarinet trio. During its straightforward vaudeville turns, “Tug of War” is a treat, at least until the plot kicks in again.
Those least prone to commenting on the proceedings — Albert Meijer’s preening “Alfonso Bigbuxo the Turd”; Curtis C.’s charismatic Arcturus; Jill C. Klein’s imperious Battleaxia — make the strongest impression, with particular kudos to the hilariously impish handmaiden Vinita of Bob Beuth who embraces his drag role with a total lack of self-consciousness. (Only misstep is the doffing of his wig to reveal a bald head. Done during the curtain call, it’d be delightful, but it comes as an unfunny and crass gesture during the play itself.)
The Getty Villa programmers alternate between tragedy and comedy each summer. Gracing the handsome amphitheater in September ’08 will be Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon,” which gives them two years to find a good plotter and gagsmith who can “adapt” another Plautus — “The Menaechmi,” perhaps — by essentially writing the piece from scratch. Two years should be plenty, and if not, they can always do “Forum.”