The United Players of Vancouver give Plautus’s Amphitruo new life

Content warning: This article features the mention of slavery, physical violence and sexual assault.

To kick off its 62nd season, the United Players of Vancouver is presenting a modern production of ancient Roman playwright Plautus’s tragicomedy Amphitruo, directed and translated by UBC’s very own Dr. Toph Marshall of the CNERS department, who is in his inaugural season as the troupe’s artistic director.

This play, in which the god Jupiter sleeps with — or, more precisely, rapes through deception — the mortal woman Alcumena by disguising himself as her eponymous husband who is away at war, has rarely been performed due to the loss of considerable portions of its manuscript.

Translating a millennia-old theatrical work both into contemporary language and onto the contemporary stage is no small task, and one that requires immense creativity and artistic discretion. This is especially the case when one has to ensure the grim plot remains humorous even to audiences today, whose attitudes to serious matters featured in the play — such as slavery and violence against women — have evolved considerably. In their groundbreaking production, Marshall and the United Players have been exceptionally successful in balancing authenticity and resonance.

Save for a few phrases here and there which have been updated for the sake of clarity, some slight but impactful insertions and more notably, the sung portions of the play (done in collaboration with composer Alex Silverman), the script is a fairly direct translation of the original text.

It is in the onstage presentation, as well as the aforementioned songs, that the perhaps more difficult task of translating the work in spirit takes place. Apart from some of the longer monologues in which certain sections are quite unavoidably lost in translation, there is little that is archaic about the play which currently graces the stage at the Jericho Arts Centre. Through reinvented costumes, creative set design and the addition of new elements such as slapstick choreography, mime and the use of spoken onomatopoeia as a running gag, the United Players successfully approximate the humorous impact that the play would have had on its original audience of Roman festival-goers.

Most notably, they make great use of the metatheatrical nature of the play: even in its original form, Amphitruo was a play where the fourth wall hardly existed, and this production only turns things up a notch, particularly when the need arises to address the lost pages.

The production’s soundtrack by Alex Silverman — whether the hyperbolically eerie muted-trumpet blares in the overture, or the various songs in which one can hear shades of everything from jazz and klezmer to pop and marching band music — also further ensures that it is a lively experience.

Unsurprisingly, though, it is the company’s players themselves who steal the stage. Claire DeBruyn and Camryn Chew, stand out the most with incredibly lively and entertaining renditions of their roles — respectively, the slave Sosia and his Olympian doppelgänger, the god Mercurius. Ayush Chhabara and Matt Loop also shine while playing the proud but wroth general Amphitruo and the sleazy Jupiter. Joan Park perfectly executes the tragic and matronly figure of Alcumena — even while allowing for moments of immense humour — and Erin Purghart is exceptionally versatile and lifelike while playing various secondary characters.

All this work appears to have paid off, as the production has been well-received by its audience. At the September 17 matinée performance, laughter rang throughout the theatre, even in situations where one might normally wince — such as when Sosia describes the brutal corporal punishment he is so frequently subjected to that it has become part of his identity — which is a testament to the production’s persuasiveness. Nonetheless, the majority of attendees fell silent for particularly tragic moments, such as those in which Alcumena’s position as a falsely accused adultery and unknowing victim of sexual assault is laid bare. This was as a stark reminder of the ultimately tragic underpinnings of a play in which Jupiter, by his own, albeit nonchalant, admission, commits a rape that nearly destroys a household – and also destroys Alcumena’s mental and physical health.