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Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight


Adam Green as Puck and Bruce Dow as Bottom in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream,' directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The experience of acting is by nature comical: “We dress up. Pretend to be other people. Make ‘real’ the most extreme serious/ludicrous situations.” These truthful words were shared by Bruce Dow, while reflecting on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Dow, who plays the wily and witty slave Pseudolus, made sure to note the musical’s classical origin in the Roman comedies of Plautus. “All comedy in western theatre—up to today’s modern television situation comedy—all stems from and draws their inspiration and plots from the works of Plautus,” he shared. People keep returning to these farcical plots, according to Dow, because “laughter and the ridiculousness of the human experience have proven the most universal constant in the theatre.”

Dow has had ample opportunity to develop his skills as a comedic actor. He spent many seasons at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, including playing the jester Trinculo in the Christopher Plummer-helmed The Tempest in 2010. He sees those skills as a continuation of his craftsmanship as an actor. The difference between a comedy and tragedy for Dow lies in the structure. In both types of drama the plots unfold in “extreme and ludicrous ways,” ultimately reaching an ending that either elicits tears or leaves the audience roaring with laughter. A tragedy ends with death, comedy with harmony and marriage.

Bruce Dow is the type of actor who holds the masks of comedy and tragedy closely together. “The best comic actors,” according to Dow, “have heartbreak just behind their eyes.” It is accepted that tragic works provide catharsis for the audience, but comedy also provides a communal relief. By laughing together there is an acknowledgment that what happens onstage is ridiculous and mirrors the absurdity of life. During last season’s A Midsummer Night Dream, Dow ran through the house and onto the stage to illustrate his character Bottom’s return from his metamorphosing adventures. Each night of the performance offered a variation on the same—with his reentrance the audience shared a collective breath of relief alongside a roar of laughter. There was both joy and fright in that moment. Above all there was the recognition that the audience and performers were all sharing space.

Dow excels at breaking down the invisible wall between performer and spectator. He believes that “as artists and as audience, we come together in a space to explore the human experience.” Laughter is caused by the recognition of that shared experience. Thinking of his favorite jokes, Dow shared that “comedy occurs when we are given cause to laugh at the King—when the King is reduced to being ‘just like us’.” And of course, there is the universal equalizer: “we are all at our most truthful and vulnerable when a little gas is passed!”

A sense of unity is created in these moments of realization be they philosophical, physiological or scatological. Forum embraces all types of realization, creating a musical that espouses the welcome from Pseudolus in the first song: “Something for everyone—a comedy tonight.”

The production’s director Alan Paul understands Dow’s ability to create community out of strangers: “he is also beloved by everyone on the staff… It was clear that he should do it. The times when the show works best is when the audience falls in love with Pseudolus. They want him so badly to succeed, as the slave who wants to win his freedom, and Bruce is that kind of presence on stage. You can’t help but love him.” STC’s production is Dow’s return to the part of Pseudolus after playing it at the Stratford Festival in 2010. Dow is excited about the opportunity to rediscover the musical and make it “totally fresh.”

Hannah Hessel Ratner, STC’s Audience Enrichment Manager, is in her third season at STC and holds an MFA in Dramaturgy from Columbia University.

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