Laughs from the Past

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Recently I had the good fortune to see, almost as if by magic, a collection of theatrical vaudeville acts from the 1920's. These short routines were recorded on film 80 years ago as tests for a new technology, called Vitaphone, which would allow silent images to become "talking pictures" and then change the world in 1927 when Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer.

These short films were crude: a stationary camera was turned on, the vaudevillians would walk out and simply do their act. The audio was captured on a wax disc, slightly bigger than a record album. After the performers bowed and walked back out of frame, the film was over. Watching now is being in a time machine that briefly takes you back to an era when vaudeville was as ubiquitous as reality television is today.

Seeing the old gags of vaudeville legends like Jolson, the Hoy family, or Burns and Allen, was fascinating. Sure, many of their jokes and mannerisms were dated, but you can still get a real sense of how talented these theater professionals were—and why they were such big stars at the time.

I was thinking about this a great deal last night as I watched a new production of a 2200 year-old Roman comedy. The performing arts, like dance and theater, can also be a powerful time machine. Here in LA, visits by London's Old Globe Theater or Milan's Piccolo Teatro have shown that old techniques and work can feel new and fun thanks to a meticulous attention to tradition.

This style of heavily researched production would seem to be what the Getty Villa had in mind when they built an outdoor theater devoted to classical plays. Last year, their production of Euripides' drama Hippolytos was an interesting mix of the ancient and the new. This year, the Getty is trying to do the same with comedy in an update of the 220 B.C. play by Plautus called Rudens.

This update is titled Tug of War. It's the work of director Meryl Friedman who adapted the play from a new translation by Amy Richlin. One can detect Rudens and Plautus in Tug of War, but both the play and its Roman author are smothered in a soapy lather of modern-day schtick.

Tug of War feels like going to a classics-themed night at the Groundlings. The director may argue that going to see Plautus in Rome 2,000 years ago was also like going to the Groundlings.

Yes, his shows involved the interaction with the audience and it's true, Rudens was written as low farce instead of high drama. But for all its mugging, Tug of War isn't funnier than a night at the Groundlings and its insistent attempts to be as topical as, say a Saturday Night Live skit, erode most of the connections to the original Roman text.

Luckily, the cast is made up of talented actors who for the most part do well in their individual parts (likely because they've done improv before) but sum of all their joking and singing is unpersuasive as either popular comedy or artistic preservation.

Sadly, watching Tug of War is not like a time machine at all—it's like watching a comedian from our era doing an imitation of Al Jolson or Charlie Chaplin. Sure, they might get some of the moves right and occasionally make us laugh, but what's missing is the conviction—not just that their act is audience tested and guaranteed to make people in the second balcony smile—but that their chosen form of artistic expression, be it vaudeville or ancient comedy, will never die.

Tug of War continues at the Getty Villa through September 29.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.