Matthew Pauli plays the Stage Manager in Faction of Fools’ production of Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town.” (C. Stanley Photography)
Theater critic

Thornton Wilder’s experiments were gentler than those of the French wild man Alfred Jarry, whose manic and profane “Ubu Roi” scandalized Paris and prefigured Dada in 1896. Both men are being showcased now, and you’d rather spend time with Wilder: His beloved “Our Town” is getting a surprisingly effective clowning twist from Faction of Fools, while Jarry’s life and work come off as antic and unbearable in a new piece from Spooky Action Theater.

“Jarry Inside Out” splatters Jarry’s biography and writings over a maddeningly fussy 2 1/2 hours. It’s meant to be a fantasia celebrating the eccentric Jarry’s imagination. “Write like the rest of us, not scorning to be understood,” one character pleads with Jarry. After seeing “Ubu Roi,” in which a petulant tyrant rules with a toilet brush for a scepter, William Butler Yeats wrote, “After us the savage God.”

Jarry is played with angsty scowls by frequent Synetic Theater actor Ryan Sellers, and although Catherine Tripp’s cast acts with mad glee at times, one-third of the small audience was gone after intermission on a recent Sunday afternoon. Richard Henrich’s rambling, aggressively disjointed script isn’t offering enough of an invitation into the man, the period, the work.

The results are remarkable, though, in “Our Town” as Faction of Fools applies its trademark commedia dell’arte style and plays the show in masks. “Our Town” is always a schmaltz risk, but the masks give it a bit of distance while bringing the folksy drama even closer to Wilder’s eternal truths.

It’s an original spellbinder from the opening moments, with Matthew Pauli (as the Stage Manager) dryly guiding us through Grover’s Corners as the playful ensemble brings the town to life — river, church, everything. The cast has a dancing quality at times; the vivid movements are free and precise in director-choreographer Matthew R. Wilson sprightly staging.

Amazingly, the performance almost never feels overly broad, though it’s hardly afraid of tumbling and shtick. The group discovers nifty jokes — there’s one that’s far too good to spoil between high-schoolers George and Emily during their famous nervous love scene over ice cream sodas — and the poignancy never misses. In keeping with Wilder’s dictum of no scenery for the play, Wilson uses little more than ladders and some basic but right-on lighting, with two Foley tables on either side of the stage where actors create a splendid and subtle array of sound effects.

Faction of Fools seems to be coming into its own as Synetic Theater gradually did with its highly refined physical method. Wilson’s cast is impressively balanced, and they aren’t reinventing Wilder’s famous characters — Mr. and Mrs. Webb, Doc Gibbs and his wife, the bitter choir leader Simon Stimson, et. al. — so much as tapping into their archetypal cores. The performance is fresh, fluid and achingly heartfelt.

To put it as bluntly as the Stage Manager might, this “Our Town” runs through June 21 in Gallaudet University’s Elstad Auditorium. It deserves a much longer life.

Our Town

by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Matthew R. Wilson. Masks, Sarah Conte; costumes, Denise Umland; lights, Michael Barnett; scenic consultant, Ethan Sinnott; sound design, Roc Lee. With Teresa Spencer, Drew Kopas, John Cartwright II, Natalie Cutcher, Julie Garner, Joe Grasso, Darren Marquardt, Rachel Spicknall Mulford, Toby Mulford, Paul Reisman and Kathryn Zoerb. About 2 hours, 15 minutes. Tickets: $12-$25. Through June 21 at Gallaudet University’s Elstad Auditorium, 800 Florida Ave. NE. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.factionoffools.org.

Jarry Inside Out

freely adapted from the life and works of Alfred Jarry by Richard Henrich. Directed by Catherine Tripp. Set, Giorgos Tsappas; lights, Brian S. Allard; costumes, Erik Reagan Teague; sound design, David Crandall; puppets, Matthew McGee. With Claire Aniela, Carla Briscoe, Mikey Cafarelli, Connor J. Hogan, Ian LeValley, Karin Rosnizeck and Eva Wilhelm. About 2 1/2 hours. Tickets $25-$35. Through June 21 at Spooky Action Theater, 1810 16th St. NW. Call 202-248-0301 or visit www.spookyaction.org.