This Mirvish production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum comes with two perspectives of the same brilliant slave.
Pseudolus is the wisecracking property of Hero in Ancient Rome. In this adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1966 musical comedy, Pseudolus will be performed on some nights by comedy veteran Sean Cullen, and other nights by Shakespearean actor Bruce Dow.
With two leading men with such distinct training and background, is director Des McAnuff having his cake and eating it too?
“Absolutely,” replies McAnuff at the Canon Theatre. “Sean’s Pseudolus is a bit like Jackie Gleason. He has amazing comic timing, and he’s sometimes darker than you would expect. Bruce is an experienced Shakespearean clown. His Pseudolus is often sweet and tender, but with surprises.
“Ideally, people should see the both versions,” concludes McAnuff.
In this comedy, Pseudolus wants freedom. His master wants the girl next door, who is promised to a big, strong warrior. Owner Hero uses slave Pseudolus’s quick wit and creative lying to get the girl while the slave earns his freedom. McAnuff says this complex role demands multiple interpretations.
However, Cullen and Dow explain things differently at the Canon Theatre.
“I’m a former Navy Seal and they needed someone with my military training,” says Cullen.
“And my background is in classical ballet so I’m perfect for the pole dancing scenes,” says Dow.
Cullen is a comedy legend, having performed professional stand up for the last 25 years. Dow has acted for nearly 40 years; he played the jester Trinculo in last month’s Stratford production of The Tempest. Together, they’re like funny brothers. They happily praise each other’s performance as Pseudolus.
“Sean is a comic genius,” says Dow. “How his mind works within this role is spectacular.”
“Bruce is the consummate singer and actor,” counters Cullen. “He’s also one of the world’s most dangerous martial artists!”
Talking to these actors, it is easy to see how director McAnuff was convinced they should both take the lead role. The plan is for each performer to act four shows at a time. Viewers can choose between a sweet Pseudolus or a gritty one. Both will be funny. Your best choice would be both.