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Stanford Classics in Theater ventures into Roman comedy

Student theater troupe re-imagines and re-translates the family farce in Plautus' Casina, setting it in the Gilded Age of San Francisco, where a motley crew of characters pokes fun at social institutions.

Kilian Mallon Casina

Nicole Nomany, a junior majoring in archaeology, plays the coquettish maid, Kitty, and Stephen Sansom, doctoral candidate in classics, plays Cal, the bamboozling butler, in this year's production of Plautus' "Casina" by Stanford Classics in Theater.

Cleveland Stafford has it all: money, a grand Nob Hill house, shares in several major railroad companies and a farm on the Peninsula. His only problem? How to outwit his wife, Gloria, so he can live the good life with their beautiful servant, Marguerite.

Cleveland and Gloria's marital conflicts lure in their neighbors and servants, leading to a farce of plots and counter-plots involving haughty butlers, burly farmhands and a troupe of vaudeville performers.

So goes Stanford Classics in Theater's latest production – a translation and adaptation of the Roman playwright Plautus' comedy Casina.

As with their previous productions, SCIT troupe members – primarily graduate students from Stanford's Classics Department – use this opportunity to tell an old tale with a new twist.

Along with tackling a Roman comedy for the first time, the play was adapted to a non-contemporary period – the Gilded Age of San Francisco – whereas past productions have been set in contemporary times.

Casina is actually Plautus' translation of a Greek comedy into Latin, explained Carolyn MacDonald, a fifth-year doctorate student in classics who acts in the play. In Plautus' original play the characters all have Greek names, but they speak in Latin, sing Roman songs and occasionally refer to locations in a Roman city.  

"We wanted to capture that sense of here-but-not-here, now-but-not-now, so we chose a setting that would combine the familiar and the distant: San Francisco, but in the Gilded Age," MacDonald said.

"The jokes generally had to be less about current culture and politics, and more from turn-of-the-century San Francisco and the Stanfords," said Ted Kelting, a first-year doctoral student in classics and one of the play's translators who also acts in the play.

Their choice of setting "required more discipline than just throwing in a Miley Cyrus joke and calling it a day," Kelting said, adding that it was challenging to write a cohesive script, "because everyone had a different notion for what Gilded Age diction sounded like."

And, MacDonald added, like Plautus, the SCIT members took a lot of liberties with the production.

"The costumes, the songs and the dialogue shift a lot between the historical and the modern. Like Greece in Plautus' Casina, the Gilded Age in our production is a strange and wonderful collision between the present and an imagined past," she said.

Evening performances of Casina will be held on Thursday, May 1, through Saturday, May 3. Admission is free with a Stanford ID and $5 for the general public. All performances will be at Stanford's Toyon Hall.

All the slapstick you'd ever want

Since its first show in 2009, SCIT's goal has been to engage contemporary audiences with classical theater. And humor appears to be one of the first rules of engagement.

Casina, subtitled "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Nob Hill," is SCIT's sixth production and its first foray into Roman comedy. Previous productions have been adaptations of Greek plays and include Euripedes' Cyclops and Aristophanes' The Wasps.

"Aristophanic [Greek] comedy differs dramatically from Roman comedy," Kelting explained. "Aristophanes is all about political satire and [vulgar] jokes, but Roman comedy is much more about comedic situations and plots with set characters."

And even though situational comedy trumps political satire with Casina (think Modern Family versus The Daily Show), it's no less funny.

Stephen Sansom, a second-year doctoral student in classics and also a translator and actor in the play, noted, "Roman comedy has all the slapstick you'd ever want with a plot and character types that are accessible to a general audience."

Plautus is also a master of word play and sound patterns. Sansom said the script collaborators tried to capture that spirit in the translation, "whether in alliterative dialogue or pointed metaphors and puns."

Casina is the second play for Sansom, whose scholarly work focuses on Greek poetry. "As someone who hadn't acted in a play since kindergarten," he said, "I've gotten to work with the production side of theater more than I had ever thought I would."

Kelting, who studies Greek, Roman and Egyptian literature, described his participation as immensely rewarding. "I feel like I'm seeing the project through from its very inception to its completion," he said. "Also, acting like a creepy, hickish farmhand who thinks he knows high diction, my character, Buster, is just really fun."

Broadening intellectual perspectives

Noting that his work with SCIT has broadened his intellectual perspective, Sansom said, "There's an essential performance aspect to the Greek and Latin texts we study that becomes all the more real in practice."

In a democratic, collaborative process, most graduate students in the Classics Department contribute to the play in some way, whether translating, acting, directing, set-building or production.

This year, the play's cast of eight also includes undergraduates studying subjects like archeology and computer science and local alumni who have been in past SCIT shows. 

A student from the music department will provide accompanying music for the play. Local theatre community members are directing and choreographing this particular production.

"It's a community process all the way, from picking the play to the point of performance," Sansom said. "Expertise and scholarship inform every step, whether it's the meaning of a particular Greek word or an aspect of the period/place of the adaptation."

In October 2014, the SCIT troupe will take its talents to San Francisco to discuss the process of adapting classical plays and to perform Casina at a Humanities West conference.

Please note: Due to strong language and adult content, unaccompanied minors will not be admitted. Reservations are recommended for groups. Email ashep@stanford.edu or go to scit.stanford.edu for more information.