BY CARY GINELL
The cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum includes not just noble Romans, but nubile ones as well. I’m speaking of the comely courtesans of the House of Marcus Lycus, of which the beauteous Philia is the target of love-smitten Hero’s affections. We had the distinct pleasure of corralling three of these vixens for a chat about their singularly valuable roles in the show: Beth Alison (Vibrata), Julie Alice Auxier (Tintinabula), and Janelle Loren (one of the Gemini twins).
VCOS: The three of you are at different points in your careers right now. Beth, you’ve worked Off-Broadway, Julie, you’ve basically been a dancer, and Janelle, you just graduated from UCLA. Let’s talk about where you are now and where you’d like to be at some point in the future. Beth, let’s start with you.
BETH: I went to school for musical theater in New York City, so I was there for six years but I was born and raised out here, so I kind of grew up with Cabrillo and other professional theaters in Southern California. But Lewis [artistic director Wilkenfeld] actually gave me my first professional job. When I was eleven, I did The Secret Garden here at Cabrillo. I understudied Mary, and I haven’t looked back since. This is my career. This is what I plan to do with my life. I’ve certainly adjusted my path because, as much as I love live theater, unfortunately, it doesn’t pay the bills. So, I’m moving into vocal recording.
VCOS: What’s your day job?
BETH: I’m a restaurant manager. I just moved back from New York two months ago and am doing this now.
VCOS: Julie, how about you?
JULIE: My story is a little bit different. I went to college and majored in chemical engineering. Got my master’s degree and then moved down here for a job and found the local theater scene and immersed myself in that. I’d done musical theater previously and have been dancing forever, but this is my first chance to be a part of Cabrillo, which is definitely something I’ve known about for the past couple of years. I’ve always wanted to do it and now have this wonderful opportunity.
VCOS: And you’re one of those rare artists who has a fallback career.
JULIE: (laughs) I guess you could say that!
VCOS: Do you like your career in chemical engineering?
JULIE: I do. There are two parts to me: dancing and engineering. It’s definitely hard to balance, though, and I’m still figuring it out, but if I had my choice, I’d dance as much as is physically possible.
VCOS: Janelle, you’re just out of college as I understand it, right?
JANELLE: Yes, I graduated from UCLA in June. Musical theater.
VCOS: And your goals?
JANELLE: Well, Broadway, of course, but just to keep performing, and I’ve been consistently working so that’s the goal. No matter what, to keep performing.
VCOS: How about your day job?
JANELLE: I do a bunch of things. I’m a nanny but I’ve also just started assisting an interior designer.
VCOS: OK, let’s talk about Forum. With all the hilarity that goes on, do you sometimes feel that you’re just window dressing?
BETH: No. I don’t. I think it’s imperative to stay active at all times, especially in a piece like this. I think that’s what makes this production so successful. When we are standing in the background at the end of Act I, right before Pseudolus is about to be executed, I’m licking myself, I’m coughing up hair balls, because I’m the animal. I swat at Julie’s earrings and she’s bapping me on the nose. There are just so many moving parts at any given time, nobody can be passive.
VCOS: Are you three constantly inventing business?
JANELLE: We’re constantly talking to each other, like “Oh, really? What’s at midnight?” And acting as our characters and constantly trying to be funny, even just to ourselves because the audience can’t hear us. And in rehearsal, a lot of the jokes that Nick [Nick Santa Maria, who plays Pseudolus] will come up with that are on the spot or things that we’ve done behind the scenes. We never know what he’s going to say or do, which makes it exciting for us to see what is going to make to the stage. It’s always different.
VCOS: Are any of these things “in” jokes that audience wouldn’t understand?
JANELLE: No, I think everything you see from the audience is for their benefit. But at rehearsals, sometimes it’s a totally different show because Nick’s audience was us, so the jokes were totally different. That’s what keeps it fresh for him, so he never has to do the same thing twice. At a matinee, there were two sets of twins in the front row and he decided to make a joke – he brought them up to the stage to talk to me and Kai, my other twin.
VCOS: Why do you think you were cast in the roles that you got?
JULIE: When they did the auditions, [choreographer] John Charron had visions of what he wanted the courtesans to be like, so for my character, Tintinabula, I had the long legs and was very dance-y, and also kind of quirky and weird.
BETH: It’s clear that Tintinabula needs to be this beautiful, lyrical dancer with incredible extensions. And that is Julie. But I have no idea why they picked me to be Vibrata. No, that’s a dirty lie. I know why Lewis cast me. It’s a stretch for me. I am normally the ingenue. I play Disney princesses by default, and that’s what I’ve done; that’s what I did through college, that’s what I’ve played professionally, and I think this was an opportunity for him to say, “Here. Here’s something you’ve never done before. Do it.”
VCOS: Do you like that kind of a challenge?
BETH: I love it. It’s scared the crap out of me, first. It really did. I love acting and I love the stage, but certain aspects of it terrify me, and when you get out of your comfort zone, especially in comedy…Comedy is much harder than drama. Much harder. It is easy to be sad, but it is so difficult to be funny repetitively and appeal to a multitude of personalities across many different ages. But playing Vibrata has been an immense amount of fun for me and it’s allowed me to just go wild, pun intended.
JANELLE: I was in another show at the time of callbacks, so I had to come to the men’s callbacks. Because of that, I didn’t get to see any of the other girls. The only other girl that was there was Kai [Chubb], and she made it to the show as well. So we showed up to the callback and we had to do your dance, Julie, or something like it. So there we are, we’re the only two girls there, and we’re learning it. We go out into the hallway, in our sweatshirts and stuff, and we take off our sweatshirts, and we were wearing the same exact outfit underneath, but in different colors. We both had on high-waisted leggings with matching sports bras. I was wearing all purple and she was all charcoal. We literally looked at each other and said “Are you kidding me?” Our hair was the same. It was just by chance. So we went back into the room and John said, “Oh my God, you guys are matching! You know, we do have twins in the show. Stand back-to-back.” The rest is history.
VCOS: How hard is it to maintain composure? Is there anything you do to stay focused?
JULIE: It’s hard for me sometimes, especially with Matt [Merchant, who plays Miles Gloriosus]
JANELLE: “The Kiss” is very hard.
BETH: Sometimes it is extraordinarily hard to keep a straight face. Often, a lot of things that happen, we’re seeing for the first time, too. Matt got this feather on his headpiece stuck on his head, twice! Thankfully, I was not on stage. I was watching it on the monitor in the green room and people were just snorting with laughter. But they played it off so well. They’re incredible. But I think what keeps me in check on stage is I think, “This is for the audience. Not me.” And it only works if I don’t break.
VCOS: When Matt, as Miles Gloriosus, does his pratfall, it gets the most explosive laugh from the audience of any gag in the show.
JANELLE: Yes! We’re back stage, so we don’t have to worry about it and we can watch it from the side. We usually are standing, getting ready to enter, and we just hear it.
VCOS: Kind of a thud?
JANELLE: Right. And every night it scares me. It’s like “What IS that? OK, it’s just Matt falling.”
BETH: Yes. That’s the marker. “Oh, I need to be on stage about now. I just heard him fall.”
VCOS: Have there been any surprises in the show that have stood out?
JULIE: I think every night there’s a surprise (laughs).
VCOS: How about changes?
JANELLE: There have been choreography adjustments. Cabrillo is usually a two-week run, so it’s easier to get through that than when it’s a three-week run, like this show. You really need to be healthy with your body, physically, especially when certain moves can be difficult to do consistently. So, in that sense, we had to change a few things because we were getting bruised up, pulled muscles, and it’s not for dancers’ well-being to do moves that are too difficult. So we switched a few things so we could get through it and be healthy and not worry if we are going to make it or not. Then there are things that work with the audience or don’t work with the audience. When we were running the show in rehearsals, it ran maybe an hour and forty-five minutes or two hours. But it totally changes with an audience. It adds almost an hour just for the audience participation, reactions, laughter, so that’s been really interesting. Every night, the show is a different length.
VCOS: Does audience response affect your timing?
JANELLE: Oh, one hundred percent. Some nights we move through a beat very quickly. Opening night was probably the longest one we had so far. We had an invited dress rehearsal on Thursday, the day before we opened, but that’s a very different audience, our close friends, who might be actors who didn’t get in the show. So we didn’t get laughs in places where we did get them on Friday.
VCOS: What’s Nick’s best ad-lib so far?
BETH: I think this happened on opening night, and then it happened again, when Matt got his headpiece stuck on his head. He wiped his hand over his mouth to compose himself. Well, everyone loses it. So I suppose that’s more of a physical thing. But pretty much anything that comes out of Nick’s mouth.
JANELLE: One thing that was pretty funny was when Nick said to the two sets of twins in the front row, “I know that we didn’t choose you but this woman will adopt you,” or something like that. That Kai and I could join their family. It was so funny, and he didn’t tell us that he was going to say anything because he didn’t come off stage and couldn’t prepare us.
JULIE: There was one time, after “The Kiss,” where Nick kisses Matt. Well, Nick was kind of frazzled and it went on and on, and Matt said, “I haven’t said my line yet.” So they had to go back again.
JANELLE: “The Kiss” has gotten longer and longer and sometimes they’ll start to sway. It’s really hard not to laugh. I’m standing there thinking, “Oh, my God. How long is this kiss going to last? Don’t laugh. Don’t laugh.”
JULIE: When that happens, I just stare at my fingers.
VCOS: Isn’t it great that in this show, all of this is not only allowable, it’s expected?
BETH: Lewis said that, and it makes perfect sense, Nick is the only one who is allowed to break the fourth wall and do that improvisation without authorization ahead of time. So we go along with him. He is leading this who-knows-what – this gaggle of geese. He’s the ringleader. And I am constantly impressed by the remarkable talent around me and their ability to go along with it and pick it up – at lightning speed.
VCOS: Will you guys be relieved when it’s all over?
ALL THREE: Of COURSE not!
BETH: I’ve never laughed so hard during a show. Constantly.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum concludes its run this weekend. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.