An Interview with Bruce Dow on Playing Pseudolus in ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company by Joel Markowitz

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Bruce Dow is wowing DC audiences with his high-energy and funny performance of the slave Pseudolus in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Bruce Dow. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Bruce Dow. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Joel: How did you get involved with STC’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum?

Bruce: I can’t remember the exact “who called whom first,” but I remember early last year speaking to Alan Paul, Associate Director at STC and director of Forum. I wanted to know if they were interested in my auditioning for the role – and Alan wanted to know if I was interested in doing the show with STC – which, of course, I was! As I recall it, we sorta called each other for the same reason and met in the middle of the telephone line!

You have played the role of Pseudolus before at the Stratford Festival. Tell us about that production and how this new production is similar and/or different. Have you played the role elsewhere besides Stratford?

 Bruce Dow (Pseudolus). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Bruce Dow (Pseudolus). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The Stratford Production was re-imagining for director Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys, The Who’s Tommy, Big River) and choreographer Wayne Cilento (Wicked, The Who’s Tommy) of a production they had done together years before at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. For me, the honour was to be trusted by these two great men of the American theatre to carry a production they had loved for so long. While it was not a direct “re-mount,” there was a lot of things that had been worked out to fit the existing design of the piece – and, obviously, both men had very strong opinions about the piece – which was fine with me, as it was my first foray into this kind of material.

Alan Paul’s production at STC, choreographed by the marvelous Josh Rhodes (Cinderella on Broadway), is very different – in as much as two productions of the same piece by Shakespeare may be different. This production is elegant, glossy, and heartfelt. The previous one, while also heartfelt, was a bit more broad (in no way a bad thing!)

The joy for me has been to play with this new company, with Alan and Josh who brought nothing but love and respect to the material, and to question, change, and/or re-trust in the choices I had made before.

I’ve never done two productions of the same play in the same role before.

Why is Pseudolus so much fun to play? And what is it about playing this role that makes you want to play the role over again?

Fun?  FUN!?!?!  Ha!  Of course, Pseudolus is fun to play – but it is a marathon, and a bit of an out-of-body experience for me. Pseudolus wants his freedom. That has to be real and true, throughout the madness. That’s hard to juggle. Pseudolus is often NOT the funny man – he is more often than not the straight man for the crazy characters around him. And, as with any “clever servant” role, he has to stay connected to the audience AND stay ahead of the other characters in a very fast moving, and complicated plot.

For me the play is a race-horse. I get to/have to jockey it through a steeple chase.  And, hopefully, harm no one in the process. You may end up offended, but you won’t be harmed! Ha!

How do you relate to Pseudolus and how much of your own personality will we see in your own performance?

I could never go to the lengths and machinations that Pseudolus does throughout the play – I couldn’t do that to other people. But, then, I have never needed something as much as he has needed his freedom. When I remember that, the motivation is much less aggressive, to me, than it may appear on paper.

If I can bring any part of myself to this role, it is the love for the people around him. MY Pseudolus, as much as he wants to be free of them all, cares deeply about all of the characters in the play – it is never his intention to harm any of them.

I hope there is an element of compassion that might shine through the madness.

I know it is not necessarily how the role was written – I have to jockey some moments quite extensively – but, I think it makes for a closer connection for me to the role. I hope, too, that it makes him more understood by the audience. Slavery is no laughing matter.

Tom Story as Hysterium and Julie Johnson as Domina. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Tom Story as Hysterium and Julie Johnson as Domina. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

How hard is it to work with a new director and a new production when you have played the role elsewhere?

I really wanted to come to this role anew. Alan gave me the chance to do that. Any difficulty that may have occurred only did so when I had to re-wire my thinking about the role – things that had become reflex needed to be re-worked physically and mentally.

To make a “new’ choice about a character you have already played is not always easy – but when you find it, it can be terribly rewarding.

What do you like the most about working with Alan Paul and the cast of Forum at STC?

Alan is a very gentle soul. He always asked all of us to return to “the truth” whenever possible. That was a joy. They say a director’s job is 90% casting and (present company excepted, ha!) Alan did an amazing job at assembling a great team for this piece. Masters of the craft like Julie Johnson (Domina), Danny Rutigliano (Marcus Lycus), Harry Winter (Erronius), and Steve Vinovich (Senex) just know their sh*t (sorry) so well – that it makes working with them and watching them a delight.

I love to learn, and I know I still have a lot to learn.

Working, too, with brilliant relative new-comers like Nick Verina, Edward Watts, and Lora Lee Gayer (they are hardly new-comers, but when compared to the rest of us old-farts, they are!) – these guys prove that the next generation of actors will be more than capable of carrying on the great traditions of this brand of comedy.

Then… sigh… there is Tom Story… sigh… Ha!  While being of the younger-generation than I – he is my cohort, best buddy, and an admired colleague.

What scene that you and Tom are in together do you enjoy performing the most?

I love every scene with Tom. It’s like playing with a virtuosic musician. We almost breathe together. I love it.

There’s a reason he is so loved here and across the country.

What are your favorite lyrics from the songs you sing or do not sing, and what song is your favorite in the show?

My favourite songs in the show will always be “Love, I Hear” and “Free.” They are two of the finest examples of a classic “I want” song, and both come back-to-back – rare in a musical. “Love, I Hear” sets up Hero for the rest of the show. “Free” sets up, I believe, the thematic thrust of the whole show, not just for Pseudolus and his freedom – but for the freedom desired by each of the characters. Both are “baby” Sondheim at his very best. Complex, and yet, so true and endearing.

David C. Woolard has created some outrageous costumes for the show. Which ones are your favorites and if you could trade in your toga for someone else’s costume, what would you want to wear?

I love my own costume. To have someone design something that so well defines the character and the tone of the performance of that character – and yet, to have it still be the most comfortable thing I have ever worn EVER – is a miracle. Other faves are Phylia’s costume – the fabric is insane and almost glows – plus, Lora Lee in it is pretty glorious! And the Cortesans: which each have a contemporary, yet a tip of the hat to the original period of the show. Love them all.

How would you describe the score that Stephen Sondheim wrote for Forum?

Sondheim himself described it best when he said that it was his job to write, not songs in the Rodgers and Hammerstein vein that would move the story forward, but, rather write songs that act as a respite from the madness of the piece. Personally, I think he accomplished both. The songs move the story forward, or, at least do nothing to slow it down – and – they also let the audience get acquainted with each character as a real person – before any madness ensues.

The lyrics feel somewhat like “Sondheim under supervision” – I feel him wanting to break out the brilliance he showed later, but being harnessed a bit by the world-of-the-play. “Free” is about as complex a Sondheim lyric as you are going to see – and it’s the most complex ideas presented musically in the show.

The music is a brilliant young composer flexing his muscles and his understanding of pastiche, but, also exploring elements of a new tonality and rhythm for a Broadway show – a new sound.

You have done some work on television and in film. What does performing on the stage give you that working in these other mediums does not?

I have not done a lot fo work on television and film. Maybe I will do more some-day, given the chance, but I’ve been blessed to be working in the theatre most of the time – and film and TV can’t work around that schedule.

However, in my limited experience, the magic of the theatre happens somewhere in the air between the stage and the audience. And a live theatre is the only place that kind of energy/chemistry can happen.

Why do you think A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is still so popular 51 years after it opened on Broadway?

It’s popular because it’s funny. And it’s funny because what is funny in the show is what is true in life. It was true back in the days of the original source material by Plautus and Menander, and it remains true today. Human foibles never change. We all want to be free, to love, to make love, to eat, poop, and sleep.

Forum reflects the “human-family-comedy.” And it is so well constructed that you just can’t help but be taken under it’s spell.

Sure, there are some moments that feel slightly aged, and if you insist on wearing your “political correctness hat” – it’s not always going to please: but, I think girls have always been pretty, and smart, and sexy, and men have always been driven, and foolish, and loveable. Great things never change.

(and, personally, I think “political correctness” has done more to suck the life and progress out of the human experience than anything since the McCarthy era… We HAVE to be able to laugh at our own foibles. – I’m NOT talking about things that are hurtful – I’m talking about things that may embarrass us, but remain true nonetheless).

 Steve Vinovich (Senex), Bruce Dow (Pseudolus), Tom Story (Hysterium), and Danny Rutigliano (Marcus Lycus). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Steve Vinovich (Senex), Bruce Dow (Pseudolus), Tom Story (Hysterium), and Danny Rutigliano (Marcus Lycus). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

What other roles from a Sondheim musical would you like to play in the future and why would you like to play these characters?

I have already played “The Baker” in Into The Woods. I’d love a chance to re-explore him, though, I doubt I would get a better production. It was very special.  Someday I would love to play “Ben” in Follies; “Sweeney” in Sweeney Todd (though it terrifies me), also “The Beadle” in Sweeney Todd (I played Pirelli years ago, and loved that). Also, “Frederick” in A Little Night Music.  Of course, I wanna play Mama Rose… but that ain’t pure Sondheim, that’s Jules Styne, too – and I doubt anyone will cast me!

What do you want the audience to take with them after watching you perform in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum?

I just hope they would still talk to me after the show! If I get a smile and a glance, I’m happy!

Running Time: Two and a half hours, with a 15-minute intermission. Forum728x90-2 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum plays through January 5, 2014 at Sydney Harman Hall at Shakespeare Theatre Company – 610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.

LINK
Anne Tsang’s review of Forum on DCMetroTheaterArts.


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Joel Markowitz
Joel Markowitz is the Publisher and Editor of DCMetroTheaterArts. He founded the site with his brother Bruce to help promote the vast riches of theatre and the arts in the DC Metro area that includes Maryland, Virginia, and DC theater and music venues, universities, schools, Children's theaters, professional, and community theatres. Joel is an advocate for promoting the 'stars of the future' in his popular 'Scene Stealers' articles. He wrote a column for 5 years called ‘Theatre Schmooze’ and recorded podcast interviews for DC Theatre Scene. His work can also be seen and read on BroadwayStars. Joel also wrote a monthly preview of what was about to open in DC area theatres for BroadwayWorld. He is an avid film and theater goer, and a suffering Buffalo Bills and Sabres fan. Joel was a regular guest on 'The Lunch and Judy Show' radio program starring Judy Stadt in NYC. Joel founded The Ushers Theatre Going Group in the DC area in 1990, which had a 25-year run when it took its final curtain call last year. Joel is a proud member of The American Critics Association.