You can say this for the lovers and servants in “The Lady Becomes Him,” Faction of Fools Theatre Company’s exhaustingly antic farce: They are one up on Frodo Baggins. That determined hobbit famously took charge of a problematic magic ring. The characters who scamper, conspire and pratfall their way through “The Lady Becomes Him” have to cope with two.
And those two bits of jewelry give rise to a farrago of kooky blunders, double takes, madcap chases and slapping matches before the end of this relentlessly lighthearted tale, which is based on a commedia dell’arte scenario from 17th-century Naples. Faction of Fools specializes in commedia, a centuries-old street-theater form, so it’s no surprise that the gags and comic speeches in this production, directed by company veteran Toby Mulford, often display a confident aplomb. Still, theatergoers with a limited appetite for frenzied silliness — scrappy fisticuffs, breathless racing about, repeated physical entanglements with bedsheets and so on — may find that, even at a mere 90 intermission-less minutes, this show feels slightly overlong.
Admittedly, Faction of Fools has raised the bar for its endeavors with such productions as “Hamlecchino” and “A Commedia Romeo and Juliet” — resonant works that showcased the commedia aesthetic but also commented intriguingly on theatrical and literary tradition. “The Lady Becomes Him” is a more straightforward dose of clowning, complete with ridiculous plot twists, stylized physicality, commedia-style masks (designed by Aaron Cromie) and a performance on a musical saw.
The zaniness whiplashes around a set whose small size and simplicity — a painted street scene, two windowed walls, laundry hanging from clotheslines — echo the portable booth-stages of commedia’s early days. The scenic design (devised by Daniel Flint) represents a piazza in Naples, where the handsome youth Orazio (a gamely swashbuckling Stephen Hock) woos Celia (Lindsey D. Snyder), young wife to the tyrannical Il Dottore (Matthew Pauli). From a mysterious sorcerer (Amelia Hensley), the lovers obtain two enchanted rings: one that makes Celia look like Pulcinella (John V. Bellomo), Il Dottore’s gluttonous servant, and a second that makes Pulcinella look like Celia. Predictably, everyone loses track of who’s who, and mayhem ensues.
Looking poised and stocky in his baggy white outfit, with a slapstick at his side, Bellomo packs much affably egoistic personality into Pulcinella, whose idea of extolling a woman is to compare her face to “a giant pizza pie.” Also enjoyable are Pauli’s blustering Il Dottore — who sports absurdly bushy eyebrows — and Jesse Terrill’s gently impish version of Coviello, Orazio’s servant. Terrill, who is also the production’s composer, sometimes underscores the action with archly suspenseful music that he performs on the violin. (He also handles the musical saw.)
Snyder gives an effective tinge of baffled masculinity to the sequences in which she portrays the disguised Pulcinella (the lumbering servant finds women’s attire exasperatingly uncomfortable). In addition to an energetic, banjo-playing turn as Pulcinella’s two-timing girlfriend, Rosetta, actress Rachel Spicknall Mulford is very funny as the sorcerer’s easily distracted attendant Spirit. (Lynly A. Saunders designed the attractive costumes, including the sorcerer’s handsome rainbow-flecked robe and elaborate headdress.)
Two characters — Celia’s rival-in-love, Isabella (Hensley), and Luzio (James McGowan), who pines for Isabella — communicate in American Sign Language. In keeping with this detail, and with the fact that Faction of Fools is a troupe-in-residence at Gallaudet University, the production includes open-captioning on a board above the stage. At one point, irritated by a character’s behavior, the smart-alecky caption board announces that it is going on strike; fortunately, the quarrel is quickly put right.
Eventually, the story ends happily for almost everyone — although those rings will perhaps be gathering dust in the sorcerer’s supply closet, until they can run the next batch of hapless protagonists ragged.
Directed by Toby Mulford; lighting design, Chris Holland; props, Kristen Pilgrim; assistant director, Tyler Herman. 90 minutes. Through May 12 at Eastman Studio Theatre, Elstad Annex, at Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Ave. NE. 800-838-3006. www.factionoffools.org.
Celia Wren is a freelance writer.