Pseudolus is back in town at long last, and so is Bruce Dow.
Pseudolus can trace his lineage back to the old Roman farces written by Plautus, and to “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the 1962 musical with a score by Stephen Sondheim.
The musical had an out-of-town tryout right here in Washington at the National Theatre, and Jerome Robbins lent a hand with the book before the show made it to Broadway and became a memorable musical, Sondheim’s first major effort, although a long
way from the types of musicals that he would become famous for.
Dow is returning to Washington in the sense that he was here playing Bottoms in the Ethan McSweeney-directed version of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and what a memorable Bottom he was at that, playing the stage-struck leader of the so-called mechanicals who had quite a midsummer night himself, ending up wearing the head of a donkey with Titania, the queen of the fairies.
“That was a wonderful experience, the whole production was just a delight to do here,” said Dow, who calls himself mostly a North American, being born in Seattle and raised in in Vancouver, Canada, living a goodly time in Seattle and now being somewhat between residences. He plays Pseudolus, a part he’s played before, including a memorable production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada. “So, I’m glad to be doing this here.”
Pseudolus, the slave who schemes mightily and cannily to gain his freedom during the course of “Forum,” cast a long shadow, as does “Forum” itself, especially in its Richard Lester-directed film version, which starred Zero Mostel as Pseudolus, and featured such legendary clowns as Phil Silvers, who turned down the role on Broadway, and even Buster Keaton. Silver would return to head a Broadway revival, while Nathan Lane starred in still another version.
“You don’t ever try to compare yourself to Zero, or to the film,” Dow said. “It’s just not smart. The movie was a movie, it was very strange, zany, and so forth, but it’s not the show, the play, it’s not theater.”
“It has tremendous music in it, this was Sondheim’s first really big show, so to speak,” Dow said. “It’s more than ‘Comedy Tonight.’ It has wonderful ballads, and it has a lot of resonance. This was a show in which many of the main characters are slaves, who want more than anything to be free. You can feel that if you really listen to the song ‘Free.’ ”
“The roots are of course vaudeville, everybody in it originally came from that milieu, with its time-honored farce and physical humor and vulgarity,” Dow said.
“I knew when I was a child that this was what I wanted to do and my parents encouraged me,” Dow said. “I got superb and broad training at the University of British Columbia. I wanted to be an actor, but I had such good professors, and learned about so
many things that I joined their MFA in directing program.”
Luckily, Dow returned to acting and did a lot of it and all kinds of it at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, including two stints in “Forum,” playing the host in “Cabaret,” various clowns and character parts in Shakespeare plays, including a stint as Trimulco in a production of “The Tempest,” which starred Christopher Plummer.
He also went to Broadway in roles in productions of “Jane Eyre,” “The Music Man” and most recently “Jesus Christ, Superstar” in which he played Herod, singing nifty lines like “You’re the Great Jesus Christ, the Great Jesus Christ, walk across my swimming pool.”
Herod was a revelation to many people—this was a full blown, full-bodied, avid character—you can catch Dow singing to Jesus on YouTube, dancing, hoofing, eyebrowed and gowned, draped around a piano.
His training and his track record and that American-Canadian thing, his versatility seems not just something he learned but a quality he has. He can do Japanese-style theater, he can sing (two CDs, cabaret and pop music), he can hoof a little, he’s a clown of the highest and lowest order (there was no end to his Bottom, a truly original personification), he has written two shows. On the phone, you hear the eager clown, but also the guy on a quest.
“I think that line between comedy and tragedy, serious straight plays and musicals and musical comedies is very thin,” he said. “I’d like to do some things, ‘Timons of Athens,’which is rarely done, it’s a great challenge I think. Beckett’s tramps, they’re desperate, but they’re funny too, they’re clowns, after all.
It would not pay to tag Dow as a clown, or any other specific tag. He’s more like Bottom, a mechanical born to be a theatrical, a man of the imagined worlds and people of the theater.
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” runs through Jan. 5 at the Harman Center for the Arts; www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.