Thorneloe’s “Menaechmi” brings the Roman Empire to the Al-Ray

FROM LEFT: Stephane Marcoux, Nick Barbeau, and Jake McNeil in Thorneloe's "Menaechmi". Photo by Callam Rodya.

By Callam Rodya
Arts & Entertainment Editor

This article appears in the Feb. 25 print edition of Lambda. Scroll down for bonus online video content.

When people think of classical theatre, generally the first thing that comes to mind is the work of Shakespeare. Others might reference Moliere, or even far more recent writers such as Chekhov or Ibsen.

However, the true classical theatre has its origins in the Greek and Roman Empires, where the theatre was actually born.

Now, a new co-production between Thorneloe Theatre Arts and the Thorneloe Classics Department aims to take audiences all the way back to the Second Century, BC with Menaechmi by the revered Roman playwright Plautus.

Performed at the Alphonse Raymond beginning Wednesday, Mar. 2, Menaechmi is widely considered to be Plautus’ greatest work. It is a comedy about mistaken identity involving a set of twins, Menaechmus of Epidamnus and Menaechmus of Syracuse, and is said to have inspired two of William Shakespeare’s works: The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.

This is the second “classics play” mounted at the Alphonse Raymond in as many years. Glenn Paquette, a Thorneloe classics student and the show’s producer, organized the annual production and was the one who picked the Plautus comedy.

“Last year, we did a Greek play,” said Paquette. “This year, we thought we’d do a Roman play by one of the most famous Roman authors. However, I wanted to stay away from some of his most well-known plays. This was sort of the funniest play I could find that wasn’t overly-done already.”

According to Paul McGilvery, another organizer and the assistant director on this production, Roman comedies are far less political than their Greek counterparts and instead focus much more on just being funny.

“I kind of think of the Greek comedies as Air Farce,” said McGilvery. “This one is much more of an every-day humor.”

The idea behind this particular production is to try and recreate the experience of seeing a show in the Roman period while still keeping it accessible to the modern audience. Initially, it was a challenge for the show’s director, Thorneloe theatre professor Jenny Hazelton.

“I have a very minimalist and sort of an eclectic approach when I do my own work so I was a bit concerned about being so structured and specific about how it was supposed to be done,”she  said. “But it ended up being a really cool experience because it’s actually very theatrical.”

“We’re towing the line between modernity and the stock characters of ancient times,” said McGilvery. “We’re towing the line between trying to keep things a little bit period, just enough to give a flavor of what a Roman audience might have been seeing, while keeping it accessible and funny to a modern audience.”

Hazelton is grateful to have two classics majors guiding her along as she directs.

“Paul and Glen are kind of the overseeing eye in trying to keep it as structured as traditionally as it should be,” she said. “They’re sort of like my dramaturgs.”

Though written in the second century, the production team agrees that the humor is just as relatable today.

“It’s just timeless – sex and money, things that never change,” said McGilvery.

“The material is very bawdy with lots of bathroom humor, like what you might see in modern sitcom television,” said Hazelton.

Two unfinished masks used in the production. Photo by Callam Rodya.

For the actors, the biggest challenge is performing an entire show in traditional Roman-style masks.

“You need to have a constant awareness of where you are spatially, because it’s not easy to see in the mask,” said Jake McNeil, who plays Menaechmus of Epidamnus. “You need to be aware that your mask is facing out to the crowd, that you’re projecting through the mask.”

“It’s a whole other way of performing physically on stage,” said Hazelton. “The way you move, the way you act and react, it’s much more in the body than in the face.”

“There is no facial expression because of the masks so everything needs to come from the arms and the body,” says Stephane Marcoux, who plays Menaechmus of Syracuse.

It makes for a much bigger, more physical style of performance.

In addition to the masks, the actors all wear togas, and not much else.

“It’s very liberating,” said McNeil. “It makes for interesting movement on stage because you don’t want your ‘stuff’ to sprawl open.”

On the other hand, one defining costume piece of the Roman theatre has been cast aside for this production.

“All the males would have been wearing leather phalices,” laughs McGilvery. “We haven’t done that.”

FROM LEFT: David Alexander, Jake McNeil, and Paul McGilvery in Thorneloe's "Menaechmi". Photo by Callam Rodya.

In keeping with Roman tradition, the cast is made up exclusively of men. For David Alexander, making his stage debut comes with some added perks. He plays Charlene, the wife of Menaechmus of Epidamnus.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “I get to have boobs and a crazy voice, and I get to just play around.”

Of course, in the end, this production is trying to recreate the experience of being a Roman audience member.

“This is probably the closest you can get to the experience of what the traditional production would have been like,” said Paquette. “Even the stuff they do in Europe is very modernized. We want people to heckle. We want people to show up in togas. We want to create as authentic experience as we can.”

Director Hazelton doesn’t want anyone to be scared off by a classical production.

“We often think of antiquated material as boring, but really we’re no different today than we were in the Roman times in terms of the things we find funny, and the sexuality,” she said.

“It’s fun,” said actor Nick Barbeau. “It’s not something you might normally do, so why not? People are always saying ‘I want to do something different.’ Well, come see a show.”

Plautus’ Menaechmi is performed Mar. 2, Mar. 4, and Mar. 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8 for students and $10 for the general public, but if you wear a toga, it’ll only cost you $5. All tickets are available at the door.

“You read a lot of this kind of stuff in theatre and in literature, but you don’t really get to see it,” said Hazelton. “There’s something to be said for actually seeing it.”