A Commedia Romeo and Juliet

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Editorial Review

Poetry gets the ax, Romeo gets laughs

By Celia Wren
Monday, Jan. 16, 2012

You never noticed the yuks in "Romeo and Juliet's" graveyard scene? Well, Matthew R. Wilson, who heads the commedia dell'arte-focused Faction of Fools Theatre Company, is one up on you. As director and co-adapter of the company's cheerfully rough-hewn "A Commedia Romeo and Juliet," Wilson seizes on and spins a couple of Shakespeare's lines, with the result that poignant suspense becomes slapstick.

Surreptitiously visiting the spot where they believe their beloved Juliet lies dead, Romeo (Drew Kopas) and the nobleman Paris (Toby Mulford) - as yet unaware of each other's presence - order their servants to hand them accouterments: a wrenching iron for Romeo, a bunch of flowers for Paris. In Wilson's version, the attendants, stumbling in the dark, hand the wrong item to the wrong fellow. Buffoonery results.

The shtick exemplifies the flavor of this scrappy production, which delivers its largely irreverent humor lickety-split - the running time is 80 minutes - while commenting on entwining influences in classical art. An expert in the history and practice of commedia dell'arte, the Italian street-theater form that was ascendant in Shakespeare's day, Wilson has noted that "Romeo and Juliet" echoes that tradition's stock characters and story lines: The play's eponymous lovers resemble the young sweethearts that were commedia staples; Tybalt smacks of the blustering capitano soldier figure; and so on.

On the strength of these parallels, Wilson builds his production, which features commedia masks, a mere five performers and a script that the director, collaborating with actor Paul Reisman, has ruthlessly whittled down from Shakespeare's text. Obviously, much of the play's poetry gets the ax; and as for pathos and catharsis, there's little more here than would fit in an empty hazelnut. But this tweaked "Romeo and Juliet" sheds light on the play's humor and plotting, and it suggests the cheeky, riff-on-the-familiar aesthetic that must have been a hallmark of the improvisatory commedia.

As for entertainment: The ghost of the highbrow-lowbrow "What's Opera, Doc?" cartoon ("Kill the wabbit!") haunts the proceedings here, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Mind you, "What's Opera, Doc?" had more polish. Unfolding against black curtains, the stage business in "A Commedia Romeo and Juliet" pivots around a huge trunk. (Daniel Flint is scenic and props designer.) At times the trunk is a platform - as when actors crouch on it to evoke Queen Mab's chariot during Mercutio's famous speech. At other times, the trunk breaks into reconfigurable cubes that evoke Juliet's balcony, the columns of the Capulet ballroom and more. At a performance for members of the press, however, the trunk repeatedly malfunctioned, forcing the actors to fiddle with it while ad-libbing. They handled the situation with winking aplomb.

"Lord, I pray that everything in this show may go well," Kopas intoned, while waiting for his cast mates to wrench the trunk into a cross denoting Friar Lawrence's cell. "Pray a little harder!" suggested Reisman, who plays Mercutio.

Of course, such ad-libbing arguably smacks of commedia technique, as does the capering, roughhousing physicality the actors display throughout the play. Mulford is notably diverting as a drolly pompous Paris and a windbaggy Nurse. (Lynly A. Saunders designed the fast-change-friendly costumes: red for Capulets, blue for Montagues. Jesse Terrill scored the tootling music.) Among other turns, Eva Wilhelm brings out the fidgety zanni (as commedia's servant characters were known) in Friar Lawrence, while Gwen Grastorf dares to mix some angst into her Juliet and Kopas takes Romeo from goofy dreamer to laid-back romantic lead.

But Reisman is the standout, especially as a flamboyant Mercutio. When this lovable eccentric gets his death blow, the actor unexpectedly takes off his mask. Designer Sarah Tundermann's lighting grows steely. A chill socks into the silence. Fleetingly, the production nods at tragedy.

You never noticed the yuks in "Romeo and Juliet's" graveyard scene? Well, Matthew R. Wilson, who heads the commedia dell'arte-focused Faction of Fools Theatre Company, is one up on you. As director and co-adaptor of the company's cheerfully rough-hewn "A Commedia Romeo and Juliet," Wilson seizes on and spins a couple of Shakespeare's lines, with the result that poignant suspense becomes slapstick.

Surreptitiously visiting the spot where they believe their beloved Juliet lies dead, Romeo (Drew Kopas) and the nobleman Paris (Toby Mulford) - as yet unaware of each other's presence - order their servants to hand them accouterments: a wrenching iron for Romeo, a bunch of flowers for Paris. In Wilson's version, the attendants, stumbling in the dark, hand the wrong item to the wrong fellow. Buffoonery results.

The shtick exemplifies the flavor of this scrappy production, which delivers its largely irreverent humor lickety-split - the running time is 80 minutes - while commenting on entwining influences in classical art. An expert in the history and practice of commedia dell'arte, the Italian street-theater form that was ascendant in Shakespeare's day, Wilson has noted that "Romeo and Juliet" echoes that tradition's stock characters and story lines: The play's eponymous lovers resemble the young sweethearts that were commedia staples; Tybalt smacks of the blustering capitano soldier figure; and so on.

On the strength of these parallels, Wilson builds his production, which features commedia masks, a mere five performers and a script that the director, collaborating with actor Paul Reisman, has ruthlessly whittled down from Shakespeare's text. Obviously, much of the play's poetry gets the ax; and as for pathos and catharsis, there's little more here than would fit in an empty hazelnut. But this tweaked "Romeo and Juliet" sheds light on the play's humor and plotting, and it suggests the cheeky, riff-on-the-familiar aesthetic that must have been a hallmark of the improvisatory commedia.

As for entertainment: The ghost of the highbrow-lowbrow "What's Opera, Doc?" cartoon ("Kill the wabbit!") haunts the proceedings here, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Mind you, "What's Opera, Doc?" had more polish. Unfolding against black curtains, the stage business in "A Commedia Romeo and Juliet" pivots around a huge trunk. (Daniel Flint is scenic and props designer.) At times the trunk is a platform - as when actors crouch on it to evoke Queen Mab's chariot during Mercutio's famous speech. At other times, the trunk breaks into reconfigurable cubes that evoke Juliet's balcony, the columns of the Capulet ballroom and more. At a performance for members of the press, however, the trunk repeatedly malfunctioned, forcing the actors to fiddle with it while ad-libbing. They handled the situation with winking aplomb.

"Lord, I pray that everything in this show may go well," Kopas intoned, while waiting for his cast mates to wrench the trunk into a cross denoting Friar Lawrence's cell. "Pray a little harder!" suggested Reisman, who plays Mercutio.

Of course, such ad-libbing arguably smacks of commedia technique, as does the capering, roughhousing physicality the actors display throughout the play. Mulford is notably diverting as a drolly pompous Paris and a windbag-y Nurse. (Lynly A. Saunders designed the fast-change-friendly costumes: red for Capulets, blue for Montagues. Jesse Terrill scored the tootling music.) Among other turns, Eva Wilhelm brings out the fidgety zanni (as commedia's servant characters were known) in Friar Lawrence, while Gwen Grastorf dares to mix some angst into her Juliet and Kopas takes Romeo from goofy dreamer to laid-back romantic lead.

But Reisman is the standout, especially as a flamboyant Mercutio. When this loveable eccentric gets his death blow, the actor unexpectedly takes off his mask. Designer Sarah Tundermann's lighting grows steely. A chill socks into the silence. Fleetingly, the production nods at tragedy.

Tragedy trumps a jovial ‘Romeo’

By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Jan. 13, 2012

As required reading in high school, "Romeo and Juliet" may be one of theater's most recognizable stories. Who can't recite at least snippets of the balcony scene or recall the bitterness of Mercutio shouting, "A plague o' both your houses"? Who doesn't remember the tableau when Juliet, under the spell of a coma-inducing potion, is erroneously pronounced dead?

Matthew R. Wilson remembers it a little differently than most.

"That scene is ridiculously funny," says Wilson, director of Faction of Fools' commedia dell'arte take on Shakespeare's tragedy. "It's just like aria of grief after aria of grief. It's so much too much."

Wilson's screwball 70-minute adaptation, which opened this week at Flashpoint, employs the hallmarks of traditional Italian comedies. There will be masks and slapstick-heavy brawls, quick-witted jibes and archetypal characters overflowing with stylized emotions. However nontraditional that may sound, Wilson makes a case that his version may actually align with what Shakespeare had in mind.

"A traditional Italian comedy - and Shakespeare knew the genre very well - starts with chaos and ends with a wedding," says Wilson, who studied and taught commedia dell'arte in Reggio nell'Emilia, Italy. "I think if you know that, then you can see what's really genius about what Shakespeare did. . . . He put the wedding in Act III and kept the story going after that. So the comedy stops halfway through. And then people start dying."

That being said, Wilson hasn't dramatically altered the dialogue so much as whittled it down.

"The text is all Shakespeare," he says. "I think people will be surprised by some scenes that are a lot funnier than they ever thought they were. That's just how he wrote it."

That means the comedy relies on delivery, and to punch up the humor, Wilson has his actors doing quadruple duty, and then some: "We said, 'Let's do it with five people. That will be even stupider.' "

Drew Kopas, who juggles four characters, including Romeo, seems to marvel at how well it all works, especially playing the title character as the "goofy archetype of the lover" from traditional commedia dell'arte productions.

"Everyone has preconceived notions of what Romeo and Juliet are," he says. "I didn't expect them to work out as well as they do. They kind of illuminate the text."

Although the staging by Wilson plays for laughs, his version doesn't dispense with the story's ultimate tragedy. The director-adapter has paid particular attention to the play's big turning point - the duels that culminate with Tybalt's and Mercutio's deaths - both because it's an important tonal shift and because Wilson works as a theatrical fight director.

"That scene is exciting," Wilson says. "A lot of people think, with the fights, 'We'll add that on later,' and to me, it's always the most important part of the play. That's the thing that you're leading up to, right? And it really is in this play."

As for the fracas, it's a flurry of movement, with one actor sitting on another's shoulders before being swung around upside down and forming a human pretzel with yet another. It's physical comedy right up until the moment when sword meets flesh. The use of humor feels like a risk even if it comes, in part, from Shakespeare's source material. But Wilson isn't too concerned with that or his loony depiction of Juliet's feigned death.

"I think if by the middle of Act IV, [the audience members] haven't accepted what we're doing, then we've lost them," Wilson says. "If people get onboard for the ride, they will see that, really, the first half of this play is just silly, wonderful fun. And then, the sadness is: It was supposed to stay silly, wonderful fun, and it doesn't.