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Tickling ancient funny bones

Meryl Friedman aims to rejuvenate Roman gags at the Getty Villa.

September 01, 2007|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

As Meryl Friedman plowed through ancient comedy's greatest hits, looking for 21st century AD laughs in 3rd century BC material, she began to wonder whether funny things really did happen on the way to the Forum.

This was not what the veteran stage director, who has made a cottage industry of adapting literary texts into play-able form, was hoping for as she plumbed an assortment of translations. She mulled over Menander, pondered Plautus and interrogated Terence, probing for a play that could make laughter ring from the stone tiers of the outdoor theater at the Getty Villa near Malibu -- where she was engaged to mount the annual, summer's-end production. The one she eventually chose, "Tug of War," adapted from Plautus, began previews this week.

After last September's well-received inaugural show, Euripides' "Hippolytos," Villa officials were looking for balance: tragedy last summer, so comedy tonight -- preferably a Roman one. But how to shake the dust from 2,200-year-old jokes?

"There were moments, going through it all, where I was like, 'Oh, my, they're all so much the same,' " Friedman said, laughing. The play that stood out as different, if not self-evidently sidesplitting, was "Rudens," Plautus' tale of cheeky slaves trying to get the better of their presumed betters, and presumed virgins trying to avoid having to turn tricks for a greedy pimp. It was set beside the sea, at a shrine to Venus, the goddess of love. That, Friedman thought as she turned pages at home in Van Nuys, could yield color and provide a canvas she could spray with silliness and song. Maybe she could kindle something akin to the bedazzlement she had felt as a girl watching Florence Henderson take a shower onstage at Lincoln Center, washing that man right out of her hair in a 1967 production of "South Pacific."

Along with the neighborhood talent shows Friedman organized while growing up in New York, "South Pacific" and other musicals she saw with her parents had won her to the theater for keeps. But never had she suspected that any ancient play would be the ticket to the most prominent gig of her career.

For many years, Friedman had been a linchpin of the small-theater scene in Chicago, where, in 1982, she was one of the handful of recent Northwestern University grads who started the Lifeline Theatre, aiming to stay busy while auditioning for jobs on bigger stages. Within a few years, Lifeline had turned into a job in itself. With Friedman as producing director, the company, which included Steven Totland, the husband she'd met as a college sophomore, found a niche adapting stories not originally written for the stage.

As writer, director or both, Friedman re-imagined novels such as Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," Mark Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson" and Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness." Alongside the adult fare, she launched a successful children's series, adapting many of the titles herself.

Christina Calvit, a Chicago writer and Lifeline company member, came to appreciate Friedman's imaginative reach as they collaborated. Especially vivid, she says, was the set Friedman ordered for "Jane Eyre," capable of collapsing every night around a central beam to enact the destruction of Thornfield, the story's bleak Gothic manor. In the first preview, Calvit recalled, the rigging came down only part of the way, leaving a beam and curtains dangling.

"Meryl looked at me and said, 'That's incredibly dangerous to actors, I've got to stop the show.' She got on stage, ripped those curtains down, and the show went on. That was a moment of shining glory. She sees a problem, she takes care of it."

In 1998, Friedman came west to run the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, hired by its founder, Hollywood producer-director Garry Marshall.. She and Totland had decided they needed a change, figuring they'd land in New York or San Francisco. Then Marshall, a boyhood friend of Friedman's father, called saying he needed an experienced theater pro to be executive producer at the 130-seat Falcon, which he'd opened in 1997.

"L.A. is not a place we had ever thought we would come to," because film and television weren't high on their agenda, Friedman recalls. "But we thought it was wacky enough that we should do it."

When she left Lifeline, Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune lamented, "This talented artist's defection is a significant loss."

After 2 1/2 years at the Falcon, Friedman decided that, as far as producing plays in small theaters went, she'd had her fill. "I didn't want to spend the rest of my life worrying about how to market shows." Marshall points to the children's theater series Friedman created at the Falcon as "a great legacy" and credits her with providing a steady hand during the theater's formative days. "She's what we needed to get us going."

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