Faction of Fools A Commedia Romeo and JulietBy Rachael Murray • Jan 16th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Faction of Fools Theatre Company
Flashpoint-Black Box Theater, Washington DC
Through February 4th
Reviewed January 12th, 2012
Faction of Fools sets out to starkly contrast comedy and tragedy in their Commedia dell’Arte production of A Commedia Romeo and Juliet–not without some success. dell’Arte (an improvised form of theatre with origins in fifteenth-century Italy) is full of stock characters and silly, repetitive hijinx, or lazzi. It is also a form that has had much influence on the development of comedy through the years. Paul Reisman and Matthew R. Wilson shear off quite a bit of the original canonical five-act tragedy, yet keep the original text and all the most important and beloved scenes.
This five-member, multiple-role cast has a great ensemble feeling. Most also do a nice job of differentiating major characters so we can follow them through the numerous on-stage quick changes; however, more precise use of the traditional stock character physicality would have helped to further clean up the character switches. The main characters are solid. Toby Mulford, in particular, was incredibly successful in playing the foppish Paris, as well as the role of the Nurse in drag. Juliet (Gwen Grastorf) is the weakest player, with an overly-breathy shtick that misses the mark set by her Romeo (Drew Kopas) counterpart.
Director Matthew R. Wilson tackles a lot in a short span of time. There are times when the modern line interpretation and Commedia style work very well; for example, the first Montague/Capulet brawl and thumb-biting scene. For that matter, the entire play up until the death of Tybalt works quite well, conceptually. However, the tragedy that follows only works in an alienating way when interspersed with lazzi antics. The depth and gravity is missed the minute Friar Laurence steps on Paris’ body in the tomb.
Scenic and props designer Daniel Flint’s singular set piece, an ever-transformative steamer trunk, is good–in theory. The idea of a sort-of Pandora’s Box that can quickly and easily provide set and props is interesting, certainly, and the trunk acknowledges the travelling nature of Commedia in history. The trunk is rigged in such a way that it can open and separate into sections, thus revealing hidden scenic painting and various props. However, within ten to fifteen minutes, the cast struggles with the mechanics of it all. Luckily, the otherwise adept cast made these repeated snafus into a recurring lazzi throughout. If this was the intent, it is the most clever lazzi and well-played “happy accident” I have seen.
Lynly A. Saunders’ costumes are simple and practical: “Base” costumes are given to each actor, with quickly-reversible and changeable tunics and skirts. Aaron Cromie’s traditional masks prove particularly interesting during the Capulet’s masquerade, as some characters are wearing their character masks in addition to their party masks. I am sure there is something thematic–or, more immediately–funny about this.
The lighting design (Sarah Tundermann) is successful overall. While some elements seem superfluous, there are very nice instances of light focused on particular moments that heighten the sense of tragedy. Thomas Sowers’ sound design also seems a little unnecessary, perhaps because many of the bytes are so brief that they do not become established and, in fact, interrupt scenes more than they contribute to them.
While this production is not exactly a perfect marriage (pun intended), I think Faction of Fools is on to something here. Despite its flaws, a lot of this show worked very well and gave some insight on Shakespeare’s influences. My hope is that Faction of Fools’ upcoming production of Hamlecchino, Clown Prince of Denmark further explores the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy within a Shakespearean context.
It is no accident that Shakespeare’s R&J is set in Italy–in fair Verona where family rivalries bring a tragic end to ideal love. Tales of thwarted love were the mainstay of Commedia dell’Arte players whose touring shows arrived in London by the end of the 1560s. Shakespeare knew their styles, their characters, and their conventions. And, as all good artists do, he borrowed liberally from their material in crafting his own work. Hence, Lords Capulet and Montague are like il Dottore and Pantalone, the patriarchs of two houses whose disputes wreak havoc all over town. Their children are young Lovers (Inamorati in Commedia terms), and their bumbling servants borrow from the slapstick routines of Commedia’s Zanni. Meanwhile a host of Capitano-style braggarts (Tybalt, Mercutio, and Paris–boasters in three different veins) further complicate the plot with their bravado.
Comedy ends with a wedding. A traditional Commedia play begins in chaos but progresses to an orderly happy ending. Shakespeare knew this formula, and almost all of his comedies abide by it. Ultimately, love prevails, and marriage rites announce the play’s end! In R&J, however, the Bard has other plans. This couple gets married too soon, before the curtain is ready to fall, and their story continues past a promised happily-ever-after. In R&J, the comedy ends with a wedding. Then the tragedy begins. No sooner are vows sealed than bodies fall, and starry lovers find their destinies crossed.
Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized that this play is a comedy set on edge. The text is riddles with jokes and humorous excess; the characters are fantastical. Though we think of this play as “romantic” or “tragic,” Shakespeare wanted his audiences to laugh. Then, in the midst of laughter, the knife falls. Tragedy shows up when we least expect it, and the mournful tear is all the harsher because it has been matched with joy.
Our project is to emphasize the Commedia that first inspired Shakespeare to write his play. By bringing out the humor that pervades the original text, we believe that we are complementing tragedy, not competing with it. Shakespeare was smart enough to know that loss is all the sadder when it comes with laughter.
Matthew R. Wilson, Artistic Director
Photos by Clinton Brandhagen
- Juliet, Prince, Lady Montague: Gwen Grastorf
- Romeo, Abraham, Montague: Drew Kopas
- Nurse, Paris, Sampson, Benvolio: Toby Mulford
- Mercutio, Capulet, Gregory, Friar John: Paul Reisman
- Tybalt, Lady Capulet, Friar Laurence: Eva Wilhelm
- Director: Matthew R. Wilson
- Costume Designer: Lynly A. Saunders
- Scenic and Props Designer: Daniel Flint
- Lighting Designer: Sarah Tundermann
- Sound Designer: Thomas Sowers
- Composer: Jesse Terrill
- Mask Designer: Aaron Cromie
- Production Stage Manager: Miriam L. Yoder
- Assistant Stage Manager: Sarah Conte
- Co-Producer: Tyler Herman
- Co-Producer: Sarah Bartlett Wilson
Disclaimer: Faction of Fools Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/7539.
Rachael Murray is an actor, director, and teaching artist. She is a Virginia Tech alumnus with a Bachelor's of Arts in English and Theatre Arts. A relative newcomer to the DC Metro area, Rachael has participated as both an actor and director in a variety of projects at Virginia Tech and has worked as a teaching artist with Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, New York.