Monday, January 16, 2012

Review: Faction of Fools - A Commedia ROMEO AND JULIET brings Shakespeare's wit to life

Photo by Clinton Brandhagen
" Do you bite your thumb at us, Sir?"
" I do bite my thumb, sir."
"Do you bite your thumb at us sir?"

Almost every high-school student reading Romeo and Juliet for the first time understands the tragedy of the ill-fated lovers, but Shakespeare's humor can be lost in translation.  Enter Faction of Fools' version, "A Commedia ROMEO AND JULIET," where the physical spectacle serves the interpretation well.  Faction of Fools is a D.C. theater company celebrating Commedia dell'Arte, a theater style that grew out of 16th century Italy.

While the original tragedy of the text is not ignored, under the artistic direction of Matthew R. Wilson, "A Commedia" excels in bringing the original humor of the text into focus.  The five-character ensemble executes one cleverly choreographed scene after another in an 80-minute, high-octane version of Shakespeare' Romeo and Juliet.

From the exaggerated slow-motion sword fight between servants of the quarreling houses, to Juliet's dance of avoidance with Paris, the arrogant and effeminate dandy to whom she is betrothed; and Juliet's eyes darting back and forth as she impatiently awaits the effects of a sleeping potion, the physical spectacularity juxtaposed against the familiar scenes of tragedy, allow both extremes to be more appreciated.

Although both the play and the Commedia dell'Arte style are from the times of the Renaissance, it is clear from the infusion of 21st-century humor that "Faction of Fools" has not forgotten about the audience.

For example, after giving Romeo a kiss good night and agreeing that they would meet the next day, Romeo's asks Juliet, "O wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?"  She suspiciously retorts, "What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?" with the attitude of a modern women.

In following the conventions of Commedia dell'Arte, each of the cast members play several different  characters.  Switching roles is as easy as changing a mask, flipping a double-sided costume, or changing the inflection in one's voice.  Often, the haste with which characters change adds to the hilarity, as in the case of Mercutio morphing into Lord Capulet, or Romeo into his dad, Lord Montague, in quick succession.

All of this livens a stage that, without the actors, is set with just two back drops of black fabric.  The only props used are a few stackable wooden boxes that are transformed through every scene, versatile enough to represent columns in the Lord Capulet's house, a cross and a confessional at the monastery.

Still, the lack of props also brings opportunity for more entertainment, from which Faction of Fools does not shy away.  The momentary breaks in the play where cast members integrate their own comedy of errors, don't get in the way, but rather add to the spectacle.  When "Mercutio" takes longer than necessary to arrange the wooden crates for the next scene, he notes that he would kill Rubik, if given the chance.

When the young lovers meet alone for the first time outside of Juliet's balcony, she leans towards Romeo who is perched upon a wall, and cast members push the two close - very close - together, after the movement upon their wooden boxes has caused the castor wheels to create distance.

And after Romeo, Juliet, and Paris are all found to *actually* be dead in the tomb, Friar Lawrence is briefly implicated, having been found bumbling around outside the tomb.   The friar recounts the story of the star-crossed lovers in a Clue-esque fashion; wherein the dead Juliet, and substitute dummies of Romeo and Paris, are tossed like rag dolls from one character to another.

"A Commedia" is not all jokes, we do feel the anguish brought about by the death of Tybalt and Mercutio, as well as Lord Capulet's tirade toward Juliet when she rejects her father's wishes to marry Paris.

Still, in the traditional version of Romeo and Juliet we are left with a bittersweet feeling, but to the audience's pleasure "A Commedia" squeezes every last drop out of this farce.  After reciting the  famous closing lines, "There never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo," the page turns back to the audience melodramtically with a sad face that emulates an emoticon.  Indeed, even the curtains are closed with a giggle.

Editor's Note: "A Commedia Romeo and Juliet" is on stage at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, located at 916 G Street, through February 4th. Faction of Fools' next production of the 2011 - 2012 season will be "Hamlecchino: Clown Prince of Denmark," playing April 26-May 19th at the Galludet University's Elstad Auditorium.

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