By Castor, is that a Penis??
The Comedy of Asses
"The Comedy of Asses" at UMKC got off to a very slow start on Oct. 26th. Though the musical introduction was entertaining enough to merit its place at the top of the show, the first lines spoken by Mackenzie Goodwin (Barker) left something to be desired; namely, charisma. And the next couple of scenes would follow in that tradition. However, soon this production, directed by Stephanie Roberts and Theodore Swetz, and with original music and words by Stephanie Roberts, Theodore Swetz, and Cynthia Postlewait, would come to life and offer its audience many truly priceless moments.
The comedy, written by Plautus, tells the story of a young man's desire to have (yes, in that special way) possession of a courtesan for a year. It also tells the story of an old man's desire to have (yes, in that dirty way) raunchy sex with the same courtesan. And ... it tells the story of 2 slaves who merely want to have (yes, in that life-changing way) fun ... and a little bit of freedom. Sadly, though, all three plots are all disastrously dependent on whether the slaves can get their hands on a set amount of silver (the price named by the courtesan's mother). The play is pure chaos infused with bawdy, underhanded jokes and a little butt-squeezing (which, honestly, is no surprise for a satirical Roman-but-about-Greeks play).
The many set pieces and decorative treasures existed so fittingly in this world, and it's thanks to Erin Walley (scenic designer), Aaron Wilson (technical director), and their crew that the actors had so much to play with and around during the play. The ornate ... features ... on the courtesan's place of business, though they were not really played with, were so subtle, yet so pleasing that when they were finally noticed, it became hard to look at anything else. As far as properties go, Lee Berhorst and the properties construction team handled their business and came up with some very believable and appropriate props. Costumes (Allison Dillard) and makeup pulled it out for this production. The costume creations made for these actors (along with their makeup) affected the way the actors performed to an extreme extent and the way the audience reacted to the characters. The costumes controlled this show - and this production company is lucky for that. Artemona, Damaenetus, and Cleareta are pointedly the strongest creations by the costume team - especially Artemona, whose garb and makeup made the audience have the same sick reaction the characters all had at the mention of her. In fact, all the costumes and makeup and hair designs fit the absurdity of the piece so well - from Artemona's saggy breasts to Libanus' hair to Argyrippus' shoes.
Directorially, it seemed like this production went from lying in a coffin, about to die, to razor-sharp mania in the span of about 15 minutes. The play did not really even seem to start until the scene between the two slaves, Libanus (Greg Brostrom) and Leonida (Grant Fletcher Prewitt) captivated the audience's attention and held it at ransom for the rest of the play. The blocking was extremely flat and boring in one scene (Cleareta's first scene), but it would be awesome in the next (the slave scene). One joke would soar and the next would fall heavily on the floor. Every time a new character entered, the audience's confidence in the coming scene's freshness and entertainment value wavered because of the prior lack of continuity. That being said, though, the play did increase in its humor and freshness. And eventually, it became a laugh riot during the begging scene and the following love-making scene. Bragging rights go to Scott Stackhouse and the directors for the myriad of dialects found in this performance - all leading up to Artemona's southern dialect. None of the dialects made any legitimate sense, and by Hercules! it was funny.
The original songs in this piece, ultimately, fell flat. Many of the jokes built into the songs did not work, and many of the actors singing the songs clearly felt awkward about them. The Doo-wop backup performers were a cute idea, and with just a little bit more confidence, the ruse would have played. But most of these songs just existed in this production and were not the highlights they should have been. Matthew James McAndrews (Argyrippus) sang his song with all the energy he could muster (and what a beautiful falsetto he had), and this song, if it had not been so long, would have not been included in the list of songs that fell flat. Two songs that were anything but flat were, surprise surprise, the slaves' songs. Their duet, and "Freedom" at the end of the play were very much crowd-pleasers. And the 5-part song after Artemona finds out what her husband has been up to is the most living, breathing, exciting song in this entire play. What a shame that the audience had to wait that long to experience a song worthy of this style of theatre.
The acting, like the directing, was lacking continuity. The play started off with Goodwin (Barker), whose less-than-ecstatic vocals left her audience quite pessimistic in wondering what the rest of the play would be like. Molly Kate Banks (Mute) played a very adorable character, but she, like Goodwin, had a not-quite-there-yet character. Almost all the actors, for that matter, were lacking something in their portrayals that made their audience think "Ooo, you almost have it." Eva Biro (Cleareta) was missing some of the energy she needed to play that part - especially during her song (which, to be fair, did not sound like it was in her octave at all). Her gestures, facial expressions, and voice tone were repetitive and decidedly uninteresting. Rufus Burns (Demaenetus) actually had a very gripping portrayal of his character - to the point of making his audience choke on their puke every time he thrusted his hips. McAndrews (Argyrippus) was believable as his role, but again, he lost us eventually during his song. Andrea Morales (Phiaenium) and McAndrews had some of the most believable and steamy making-out as has ever been seen onstage. It was almost uncomfortable - almost. And Morales voice was perfect for the role: high-pitched and whiny. Kelly Rebecca Gibson (Artemona) sort of missed the mark in that she could have been even bigger and more absurd than she was - the performance did not quite live up to the costume - but she played her role well enough to make her audience laugh (and the Othello reference was pure magic). The presence of Frank Oakley III (Diabolus) was confusing for the most part. Given that his role in the events is necessary to the plot, his role is merely that and nothing more. That being the case, his scene was too long, and most audience members were confused as to why it was there at all. But Oakley was physically perfect for the role, and he did a fair job at playing it. But two actors who stood out in excellent form were Greg Brostrom (Libanus) and Grant Fletcher Prewitt (Leonida). The chemistry, blocking, execution, comedic timing, and teamwork of these two men were fantastic. They were the absolute highlight of this production and the dirty, deceitful apples of this reviewer's eye. A general note about the performers in this piece is that it was impressive to see actors doubling as musicians (and the other way around). Although pieces of the puzzle were missing in this production company, many a spectator is going to be left reeling at the diversity of talent contained in the cast.
"The Comedy of Assesssssssss", once you get past the first couple of scenes, is very much worth seeing. If a spectator has seen this production before at a more professional venue, though, slight disappoint lurks in that spectator's future. The technical aspects of this production are outstanding, but the performance quality leaves something to be desired. Still though, some of the actors have great potential, and they make the trip and the money for the tickets seem like little sacrifices to see this production. Performance dates and times as well as ticket prices are on the UMKC website!