Classics Club Puts Required Reading on Stage

Staging of ancient comedy "The Menaechmi" attempts to translate Roman humor for modern audiences

Tor K. Krever

MEREDITH CLAIRE BERKOWITZ (left), from Emerson College, and SAMANTHA E. FRANKLIN '05 rehearse The Menaechmi.

Long-lost twin brothers, a shrewish wife, a crazy cook, a doddering old man, a lunatic doctor, a nymphomaniacal prostitute, a pack of thugs, a man named Sponge and the Harvard Classical Club cross paths in the Agassiz Theater this weekend in Plautus’ comedy The Menaechmi.

Required reading for Harvard’s Classics concentrators, The Menaechemi has always been one of the most popular of the Roman comedies, inspiring Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the recently revived The Boys From Syracuse and even Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.

There’s a reason the Bard imitated Plautus’ work so closely: the play’s plot, characterizations and jokes are undeniably hilarious.

And when it went up in the Agassiz last night, there was a whole new problem: that of translation.

A major goal of the production is to translate the effect Plautus’ Latin version would have had on Roman viewers, eliciting an analougus response from modern viewers. Kimel says he hopes that the costume and the set of stock characters such as the cook, prostitute and doctor will “reflect our own society’s assumptions on the nature of stereotypes.”

According to director David V. Kimel ’05, this performance will keep “original Latin medleys chanted over authentic ancient music,” but subtitles in such scenes will be featured for the non-classics majors.

But most crucial to the effectiveness of the production will be the English translation. A group of Classics concentrators spent much of the fall semester compiling a modernized translation, which producer Ben Watson ’03 and Kimel then edited into a unified whole. The translation—which is being published and will be on sale at performances—is faithful though not literal, making for impressively smooth and effective theater.

That the play has gotten off the ground so well is especially remarkable given that it is a first-time experience for so many on the production board.

Menaechmi will mark Kimel’s directorial debut, and Watson’s first involvement in Harvard theater. All involved say the experience has been challenging but rewarding.

Watson says he’s been impressed by the dedication of “the theater crowd.”

“They’re not even getting paid for it!” he says. “They’re doing it because they love it, and that’s just great!”

The diverse and enthusiastic cast includes five classics concentrators, an Emerson freshman and even two classics professors, Professor Latin Kathleen M. Coleman and Harvard College Professor and Pope Professor of the Latin Language and Literature R. J. Tarrant.

“It has been great fun being involved in this production,” Coleman says. “Thinking about how to act my tiny part has made me realize how clever and how funny Plautus’ text is.”

Tarrant says he enjoys seeing the talents of students he’s taught.

“Both Menaechmus twins were in a class with me last semester,” he says. “Maybe that explains their zest when they insult and threaten me!”

For others less versed in classical drama, the learning curve has been even greater. Many of the cast members do not speak Latin, so learning the songs in the original language has been difficult. Even for classicists, the unusual meter in which the songs are written has forced them to adjust their typical reading style.