Plautus' Poenulus or 'The Puny Punic'

Performed in the original Latin (with some English narration)

Playmakers Theatre
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC
April 14-16, 1994
Directed by John H. Starks, Jr.

Reviewed by Mary Womble Gerdes

Plautus' Poenulus has never been wildly popular, at least not lately. Damning assessments in the handbooks ('dull'; 'plot inadequate'; 'poorly constructed') may have kept some from reading it. Perhaps, too, the length of the play (1371 or 1388 lines, depending on which ending you choose), and its large and confusingly-named cast of characters (14, not counting extras), have discouraged others from trying it out on stage.

But to John H. Starks, Jr., graduate student and director of the new production of Poenulus in the Classics Department of UNC-CH, such criticisms are only a spur to action: in his view, the Poenulus (The Puny Punic) is not only one of Plautus' most hilarious comedies, but also one of the most timely for the modern audience. With its story of Romans and Carthaginians, the play shows, 'not only that the ancient world and the Latin language are multi-cultural fields for study, but also that their puns, pranks and pratfalls are just as funny today as they were over two thousand years ago.'

The story is standard Plautine fare, if a bit more involved than some. Agorastocles, adulescens, hails originally from Carthage, having been kidnapped from there as a child. The heir of his wealthy adoptive father (who is now deceased), he resides in Calydon, where he is madly in love with the meretrix Adelphasium, who (together with her sister Anterastilis) is owned by the greedy pimp Lycus. As the play opens, Milphio, Agorastocles' servus callidus, is plotting to free Adelphasium by forcing the pimp to surrender his entire household to them. This elaborate deception involves a vilicus named Collybiscus (disguised as a miles), and a group of advocati (witnesses); it accounts for most of the action in the first three acts. By the fourth act, Milphio (in conversation with Syncerastus, a eunuch who belongs to Lycus) discovers that Adelphasium and Anterastilis are actually freeborn Carthaginians, stolen from their father, a Punic nobleman, when they were young. Milphio intends to make this information public, and thereby completely ruin Lycus and his business. But about this time, the Carthaginian Hanno appears, declaiming in Punic and searching for his two daughters and for the son of a recently deceased Carthaginian friend. The de nouement is not far behind: in a quick series of recognitions, Agorastocles is identified (via a unique tessera, and scars from a long-ago monkey-bite) as the friend's son, and therefore, Hanno's kinsman; Adelphasium and Anterastilis turn out to be (surprise!) Hanno's long-lost daughters. Thus, the family is at long last reunited, Adelphasium and Agorastocles are betrothed, and Lycus the pimp is subdued and punished. As the play closes, all the Carthaginians prepare to sail for Carthage.

This production is the latest in a series of Plautine performances at Chapel Hill over the years: Mostellaria (1972), Rudens (1980), and Curculio (1991) were all directed by Professor Kenneth J. Reckford. Starks, this year's director, played Phaedromus in the recent Curculio and is also active in the Durham Savoyards, a local Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. In mounting the Poenulus this spring, he has followed a number of precedents established by Reckford, with the primary objective being to make the play accessible and entertaining to the widest possible audience, especially high school students and teachers. Thus, the play was performed entirely in Latin (to give the audience the experience of spoken Latin), but with ample help and coaching along the way in English. This was provided by the tuxedo-clad choregus/narrator, played again this year by the lively and articulate Cecil Wooten. And as in the past, the set, costumes and props were of traditional design, combined with a sprinkling of modern touches to help get the jokes across: houses of Lycus and Agorastocles painted in bright, cartoon colors; signposts boldly proclaiming the way AD PORTUM and AD AEDEM; the advocati decked out in boxer shorts and sneakers, along with classical tunics; a carton of LAC, complete with photos of Hanno's daughters and the caption VIDISTIS ME?; the ever- popular bag of tricks, and so on). If anything, this year's show made even more extensive use of such visual gags, no doubt with the high school audience especially in mind. (Judging from reactions the night I was there, this was much appreciated!)

The cast was composed entirely of UNC Classics graduate students (with the exception of the narrator, one advocatus, and Anterastilis). Some of these students have worked together on other dramatic projects in the department, and this certainly added to the cohesiveness of the group. Although there was no individual standout performance to equal that of Elizabeth Clark as Curculio three years ago, there was, overall, balance and evenness in the acting abilities of this grex, which served the play particularly well. Unlike some of Plautus' other comedies, the Poenulus has a number of good-sized parts, but no single dominant role. The casting included some perfect fits. Especially memorable were Matt Panciera's cranky, conniving, hunch-backed Milphio; David Johnson as the slimy Lycus; Rebecca Benefiel's interpretation of Anterastilis qua Valley Girl; the lazy, indifferent advocati, complete with nametags: Tardus, Tardior, and Tardissimus (Beth Calamia, Brian Lund, and D. Hunt, respectively); and, of course, the exotic, elegantly attired Hanno (Christopher McDonough). What was most impressive about the entire group was the high level of energy which they all sustained for the duration of the show, a very full two+ hours with no intermission.

One of the oddities of the Poenulus is that the Puny Punic, Hanno himself, does not even appear on stage until the beginning of Act V, at line 930. And when he does, he launches into a lengthy speech in Punic which is both incomprehensible (even to scholars of ancient Semitic, it seems) and unpronounceable. In addition, much of the subsequent scene is full of puns and verbal play, with Hanno speaking Punic, while Milphio pretends to understand him, and 'translates' the words he hears into Latin for Agorastocles. What to do? Starks' solution: replace all the Punic lines with another language foreign to the Romans: namely, English. This meant revising and altering the dialogue in that scene, and creating new jokes and puns; but the changes did not seem out of keeping with the rest of the play. And when one has been immersed in Latin dialogue for the past 80 minutes or so, English can sound very strange, even foreign. The use of English in place of Punic also helped communicate subtler messages about language, prejudice and cultural stereotyping, which emerge in the meeting here of Roman and foreigner.

Comedy, it has been said, is basically conservative: if something works, use it again (and again). Plautine comedy is full of new twists and variations on standard scenes, situations and relationships. Poenulus has an adulescens and his girl, for example. But in this play, Adelphasium has little use for her devoted swain: in fact, she can't stand him! In performance this created an interesting sort of counterpoint: on the one hand, our expectations of 'normal' romance; while on the other, the play's reality: the antipathy and even animosity of the 'demure maiden', and her masochistic adulescens. To take one more example: we expect a recognition scene in Plautus. But in this play, there are no fewer than four (in order of appearance): Hanno/Agorastocles; Hanno/Giddenis (the old Punic nurse, his former slave -- she is the only other character who speaks Punic); Giddenis and her son (slave attendant of Hanno); and finally, Hanno and his two daughters. All these interminable greetings are served up with lots of stagey, self-referential joking. Agorastocles quips that it's all like a scene from some Greek painter: I liked the way this performance brought the joke up to date, and made it instantly recognizable.

No production can be all things to all people; this one had its shortcomings and omissions. As far as I could tell, little or no attempt was made to bring out the musical or metrical aspects of the Latin text: Adelphasium, for example, has an extended operatic section (1.2) which was difficult to discern here; this long, intriguing scene was one of several which were cut for the sake of time. Some may be disappointed that masks were not used (though they never have been in the Chapel Hill productions). Starks' experiments with gender-bending (using women in the roles of the vilicus and the eunuchus, and renaming them Collybisca and Syncerasta), were certainly novel, but what exactly they were to add to the performance was unclear. And as is probably often the case in amateur productions, even one as experienced and well- rehearsed as this, the delivery and projection of all the actors (with the exception of Milphio and Hanno) left a bit to be desired.

But these criticisms are minor: all in all, the 'Puny Punic' is definitely worth seeing. If nothing else, the experience of seeing a classical play staged in the old Playmakers Theatre should not be missed. This Greek Revival temple, built in 1851, is surely one of the most beautiful buildings on the Carolina campus. Poenulus will be performed once more, in October, at the CAMWS Southern Section meeting in Chapel Hill. (Be sure to arrive early: two of the April shows were standing room only). A videotape of the play, script and instructional manual are also being prepared. For more information, contact:

John Starks,
Department of Classics
CB# 3145
212 Murphey Hall
Chapel Hill,
NC. 27599-3145,
Tel. 919-962-7191.

Mary Womble Gerdes

Mary Womble Gerdes lives in Atlanta, and is writing a dissertation on women and performance in Plautus.