By: LYNN FELDER | Special correspondent
Published: April 29, 2012
"A Funny Thing Happened" 20 years ago at Twin City Stage — then the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem — and it's going to happen again Friday when "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" opens.
What these two funny things have in common are actor Gray Smith as Hysterium and director Mark Pirolo. Everything and everyone else is new, including Ken Ashford in the lead role of Pseudolus.
The play revolves around the slave Pseudolus and his passionate desire for freedom. He will only get his freedom when his master, Hero, played by Charlie Klutzz, satisfies his passionate desire: Philia, played by Gracey Falk. Hysterium is the head slave in Hero's parents' household.
"Gray played the same role 20 years ago. Now he's the right age," Pirolo said. "As good as his performance was back then, his performance now has a great deal more nuance. He's grown as an actor."
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Well-known throughout the Triad for his comedy roles in community-theater productions, Smith said that the 1992 "Funny Thing" was a turning point in his acting career.
"Hysterium was the first role I played that made me realize that I'm a character actor," Smith said. "Everyone, when they're young, wants to be the ingénue or the leading man, but this role made me want to audition for character parts."
Smith said he doesn't feel that his characterization of Hysterium has changed much since he was 28.
"I've had a lot more experience onstage, but it's funny — I don't feel like I'm doing it much differently," Smith said. "I feel like it was a pretty solid character then, and Mark is staging it pretty much the same as he did 20 years ago. Of course, the entire cast is different.
"Having a totally different cast brings a totally different feeling to it."
One of the different cast members is Ashford. The two men have performed together in other shows.
"I always feel comfortable on stage with Ken," Smith said. "If we get in trouble with lines or something, one of us will pull the other one out."
In addition to acting in community-theater shows, Ashford works with an improvisational troupe, Nekkid Feet, and he's bringing his improv skills to "Funny Thing."
"It's more fun than other plays because we're playing off of each other in rehearsal, and some of what we ad-lib may wind up in the show," Ashford said.
"Ken can really come up with some zingers," Pirolo said. "We laugh at rehearsal a lot, and that's how I know we've got a good show. Sometimes Maggie (Margaret Gallagher, the music director) is laughing so hard that she can't continue."
"Funny Thing" is based on the work of the Roman playwright Plautus, the original physical-comedy writer. The tradition of physical comedy was carried into Commedia dell'arte in Italy. Vaudeville followed, and early television featured such physical comedians as Sid Caesar and Carol Burnett, with Dick Van Dyke picking up the banner. Jim Carrey comes close, but gross-out humor is not the same as physical comedy.
"The stage is the only place you see this kind of humor now," Pirolo said.
Actors performing physical comedy have to make the right move at the right time and convey feeling with a look. There are gags and pratfalls that require inordinate strength and skill to avoid injuries.
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During a recent rehearsal, Ashford and Klutzz worked on a scene with a dagger. Pirolo directed them through it repeatedly, choreographing the moves like an intricate dance.
"Once you've got that down, and once everybody is on the same page, then you can experiment with it and have fun," Ashford said.
"Ken's very good at finding the right moment to do the right gesture and give the audience a look," Pirolo said. "As he begins to get a handle on everything that he has to do, he's beginning to get a sense of himself as the master of ceremonies. It's really Pseudolus' need to be free that drives the show."
As rehearsals progress toward opening night, and the cast and crew learn their lines and moves, they are finding more fun in the show.
"There is a part at the end where I fake dying," Ashford said. "And what's weighing on my mind is how much am I going to ham it up without being completely stupid. I don't want to look like the guy at the party with the lampshade on his head."
Then he brightens.
"We definitely are having fun," Ashford said. "Mark provides a really good atmosphere, so that if I try to be funny and I'm not funny it's not mortifying, so I can take more risks and not worry about looking like a total jerk.
"It's a really hard-working cast — professional but fun."