Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Now You See Them, Now You Don't

The use of mistaken identity as a plot device has been a staple of comedy and tragedy for centuries. Whether a character impersonates someone else or is thought to be someone else, the question of his true identity is the key to resolving most mysteries.

Gilbert & Sullivan often used mistaken identity as a plot device in their comic operas. So do playwrights, screenwriters, and anyone else who is looking for a surprise ending.

Once a writer decides to incorporate a mistaken identity into his plot, sustaining the suspense -- or the joke --  requires great skill (not only from the writer but from the directors and performers as well). Substance, style, trust, and timing all become key factors in achieving maximum impact.

* * * * * * * * *
Atsushi Ogata's new film, Cast Me If You Can (which was recently screened at the 2010 Mill Valley Film Festival), is a perfect case in point. Ogata focuses his lens on the predicament of the professional supporting actor who is often chosen for character roles.

An actor's reward for frequent character work is that audiences come to know his face. The downside of such work (at least for the unfortunate Hiroshi Matsuzaki) is that his character roles keeps intruding on his personal life.

Hiroshi (Toru Masuoka) is a character actor whose father is a famous Japanese playwright. Because Hiroshi is also a bit of klutz, he frequently ends up in embarrassing situations where others assume that he is the same person they have seen on screen (a policeman, kidnapper, thief, pervert). His life becomes a living hell after a florist runs out of a shop with a large bouquet of flowers, points to a woman walking down the street, and informs Hiroshi that the woman forgot to take her flowers with her.

Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, Hiroshi grabs the flowers, runs after Toshiko Kuroiwa (Keiko Matsuzaka) and, as he trips and falls to the ground, aims the flowers toward her. Little does he know that Toshiko is married to a member of Japan's parliament or that she has been carrying on a torrid affair with Masaru (Tasuku Emoto), a young man half her age.

Tatsuko Emoto as the boy toy, Masaru
When Hiroshi's photo appears in the tabloids and he is mistakenly identified as Toshiko's lover, all hell breaks loose. Toshiko's jealous husband manages to get Hiroshi fired from his next job (in which he was to have his first starring role as the Japanese equivalent of Woody Allen in a remake of one of Allen's films). Hiroshi's attempts to get his job back -- or to get any more jobs -- run into trouble when his long-time manager drops him from his roster of clients.

Meanwhile, aspiring and idealistic actress Aya (Hiromi Nagasaku), who has been trying to strike up a friendship with the brooding and cynical Hiroshi, becomes best friends with Hiroshi's father (Masahiko Tsugawa).

Kenta Matsuzaki (Masahiko Tsugawa ), Aya (Hiromi Nagasagku )
and Hiroshi Matsuzaki ( Toru Masuoka)

Aya eventually becomes Hiroshi's muse and, thanks to the intervention of the American casting director for the Woody Allen remake (Edith Hanson), the film has a happy ending in which Hiroshi's father confesses that he always wanted to be an actor but had no talent. As the film ends, the father drives out to the airport in one of Hiroshi's police costumes to pick up his wife and, upon his return, is mistaken for a real policeman by someone whose house has just been robbed.

The film is directed with a sly charm by Ogata (who also appears as a convenience store clerk) and proves to be an extremely polite romantic comedy. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * * * *
When Stephen Sondheim's rowdy hit musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened at the Alvin Theatre on May 8, 1962, audiences were treated to a solid evening of bawdy humor that found its roots in the work of the Roman playwright Plautus as well as American vaudeville and burlesque. Directed by George Abbott (with some last minute doctoring by Jerome Robbins), the show won several Tony awards, enjoyed a long run, and has had two major Broadway revivals.

One of the things which made the show's book (written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart) so funny was that lines were being delivered by a cast of great comic actors (Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, David Burns, and John Carradine) who were all old enough to remember what the comedians who worked in vaudeville and burlesque were like. These men also had a great sense of timing and knew how to milk laughs out of an audience. Mostel was notorious for his unscripted shenanigans. With his gravelly voice, Burns was adored far and wide for his depiction of the cantankerous Senex. As Hysterium, Jack Gilford was simply priceless.

Unfortunately, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum did not fare well onscreen where (fresh from his success directing The Beatles in A Hard Day's Night) Richard Lester did a fairly thorough job of eviscerating the show. When A.C.T. mounted A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1989, I was shocked by how desperately unfunny the production (directed by Albert Takazauckas) was. 

There are many good reasons to revive the show (the first Broadway musical for which Sondheim supplied both the musical and lyrics). It's great fun for audiences and has a perky score filled with tongue-twisting lyrics. One would think it would be hard to strip much of the humor from this comic masterpiece. 

One would be wrong.

42nd Street Moon recently opened its season with a new production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. While there was a ton of frenetic energy onstage (the actors playing Pseudolus and Senex muffed several of their lines at the performance I attended), the first act struggled to find its pace. During the second act, the show gained momentum and the audience was laughing heartily until the final curtain.

Unfortunately, so many lines missed their mark because of poor delivery that I had to wonder if the production needed more rehearsal time or if Greg MacKellan's usually solid direction simply failed to connect to the show's lifeblood of low humor (MacKellan excels at directing musicals whose style is closer to romantic comedy than farce).

Megan Cavanagh worked hard to portray Pseudolus as the kind of athletic slave who was "just one of the guys" while Michael Rhone's Hysterium only really scored when the character was forced to get into drag as a dead virgin. Rudy Guerrero put a strong ethnic accent in the mouth of Marcus Lycus while Chris Macomber tore into Domina's solo ("That Dirty Old Man of Mine") with a vengeance.

Megan Cavanagh with the cast of A Funny Thing Happened
on the Way to the Forum
 (Photo by: David Allen)

Rob Hatzenbeller's Miles Gloriousus ended up being dominated by Kate Paul's Gymnasia while the three Proteans (Isaiah Boyd, Tyler Costin, and Jack Sale) worked quickly in disguises ranging from Roman citizens and soldiers to easily excitable eunuchs. Alas, Luke Chapman's Hero, Meghan Ihle's Philia, and Bob Greene's Senex all seemed to lack the kind of comic timing needed for their roles.

Senex (Bob Greene), (Pseudolus (Mega Cavanaugh ),
Hysterium (Michael Rhone) and Marcus Lycus (Rudy Guerrero) perform
"Everybody Ought To Have a Maid" (Photo by: David Allen)
Those of us who are fortunate enough to have seen the original production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum are acutely aware that it opened with one of those historically great casts of veteran actors who knew how to steal a scene like a kleptomaniac knows how to steal a wallet.  However, Forum requires a lot more than just running back and forth onstage in rabid bursts of energy. It requires the kind of vocal projection which hammers a laugh to the theatre's back wall, and the kind of comedic timing which leaves the audience laughing so hard that their sides hurt.

Both factors were noticeably absent from 42nd Street Moon's production.

No comments: