News Column

EPCC takes break from deep plays with time-tested slapstick musical

June 30, 2013


June 30--Longtime El Paso theater director, costumer and teacher Elizabeth "Liz" Gaidry has a tradition before each show she stages.

Gaidry meets with her cast for a talk in the Green Room, the place backstage where cast and crew hang out. "I get everybody together before the show and one thing I say, and this is partly my philosophy of life, is I think there are too many unfortunate, sad, miserable things in life," she said. "Not that it's all tragedy, but by jove we need to look for the comedy tonight and need to laugh at ourselves and our own foibles."

It's a tradition that will continue with the production of Stephen Sondheim's musical comedy "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," which Gaidry is directing for the EPCC

Performers Studio Summer Repertory this week and next.

"Funny Thing," which opens Wednesday and continues through July 14, is a 50-year-old musical based on farces written 2,200 years ago by Roman playwright Plautus.

Which only goes to show that comedy, farce and slapstick have withstood the test of time pretty well. Some 20th-century vaudeville doesn't hurt.

Gaidry, 77, likens the musical to a TV situation comedy "that is not dealing with breast cancer or whatever."

The action centers on Pseudolus, a slave of young Hero who'll do just about anything to gain his precious freedom. Left in charge by Hero's parents, Pseudolus connives to help his master win the love of the beautiful Philia in return for his freedom.

But she belongs to a neighbor, who has promised Philia to Miles Gloriosus, a Roman officer.

Sondheim, noted for his sophisticated compositions, wrote the music and lyrics, which include the popular songs "Comedy Tonight," "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" and "Impossible."

Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, one of the creator's of TV's "M--A--S--H," wrote the book. The musical debuted on Broadway in 1962, winning five Tony Awards, including best musical and best actor for Zero Mostel,

who originated the Pseudolus role on stage and in the 1966 movie version.

"It's literally a silly situation that you can laugh at," Gaidry said. "Through that silly situation, you can see other situations. With that type of comedy, the slapstick and old-timey vaudeville, even though you know the gags are coming, they are still funny."

Gaidry's old friend and longtime colleague Keith Townsend, who runs the summer rep program, agrees. He thinks "Funny Thing" offers a respite from the heavier topics and rock music of the summer program's other repertory offerings.

"Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead," "Next to Normal" and "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" deal with topics ranging from bullying to bipolar disorder to President Andrew Jackson's mistreatment of Native Americans.

"I was looking for another piece to bring on, a fun show, a summer show. A lot of people really like it," Townsend said.

But it was also a way to get Gaidry to direct again. She has been involved in theater since she was a child, and has been an integral part of local theater dating back to the 1960s. Gaidry has acted and directed at just about every local theater at one time or another, going back to late TV broadcaster Howell Eurich's "Turn of the Century" melodrama production and the Festival Playhouse, now the El Paso Playhouse.

She ran her own costume shop, was instrumental in the creation of the McKelligon Canyon Amphitheater, started the summer theater program for the El Paso Independent School District, and taught full- or part-time at New Mexico State University and El Paso's Bel Air, Bowie, El Paso and Jefferson high schools.

Townsend persuaded her to direct the two person-play "Sheldon and Mrs. Levine" for last summer's repertory season, and she starred in his EPCC production of "Rabbit Hole" in 2010.

"She's probably worked with every theater in El Paso. She's the Dionysus of theater here," Townsend said, referring to the mythological Greek god and patron of the arts.

"We've worked together on many projects, so she was a natural one to bring in," he said.

Gaidry is happy to do it, but isn't sure whether she'll direct again once this production wraps.

"I love this show. I'm real glad to do it again," she said. "I'm telling everybody that it may well be my swan song, but Keith says, 'No, no. We may need to do "Pippin." ' "

For now she's focused on "Funny Thing," noting that at her age it takes longer to do all the things she needs to do, including working on costumes. Still, she's putting in five hours a day at rehearsals, and praises the talents of her young cast, mostly high school and college students.

She hopes they walk away from the experience with the very things she wants audiences to take away. "If you can and if we can laugh at ourselves and laugh at our situations, I think we become happier people," she said. "I don't think we laugh enough."

Doug Pullen may be reached at; 546-6397. Read Pullen My Blog at Follow him on Twitter @dougpullen and on Facebook at

Make plans

-- What: "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" performed by EPCC Performers Studio Summer Repertory.

-- When: Wednesday through July 14. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday, Fridays, Saturdays and July 11; 2:30 p.m. Sundays.

-- Where: EPCC Transmountain Forum Theater, 9570 Gateway North.

-- How much: $15; $10 for military and non-EPCC students; $7 for seniors and EPCC students and staff.

-- Information: 831-5056.

-- Also: EPCC"Summer Rep also will perform "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" at 2:30 p.m. today and July 18-21, and "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" Aug. 1-4.


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