Matthew R. Wilson stars as Scapino in The Great One-Man Commedia Epic. Mask by Antonio Fava. Photo by Clinton Brandhagen. (Clinton Brandhagen)
Theater critic

Remember the Looney Tunes cartoon in which Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd change character with each stray hat that blows onto their heads? That’s the idea behind Matthew R. Wilson’s brisk and giggly solo “The Great One-Man Commedia Epic.” With each mask, Wilson becomes someone new.

He plays a dozen characters and manages the action so vividly that at one point you’d swear you were watching a pair of lovers disappearing over the horizon even though Wilson’s alone on the small Capitol Hill Arts Workshop stage.

Well, he’s usually alone. Now and then he plucks someone from the audience for a bit of friendly foolishness. And he frequently skitters up the aisle to work the crowd like a canny street performer angling to connect with everyone before he passes the hat.

The show, presented by Wilson’s Faction of Fools troupe, is basically an excuse for Wilson to run through a bunch of character types from the 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte, a deceptively knockabout form. The stock characters include wily servants, miserly old pantaloons, sweet young lovers and braggart warriors. The stories are basic: In this case, there’s an upcoming wedding that the miserly father of the bride thinks will be too expensive, so he hires a local rascal to steal the wedding contract.

That’s all Wilson needs to don and doff artful half-masks (made by Italian commedia master Antonio Fava) with bushy mustaches or fleshy noses. Though he creates brief funny business with a scarf and a dress, the costumes are minimal, and Wilson — a scholar of the form who has been performing this show for years — wears the baggy white outfit of a vintage clown, floppy collar and all.

This kind of comedy can easily grow pushy or frantic, but Wilson is smooth and charming, especially when he parries with the unpredictable audience. (You get the feeling he sizes up everyone mere seconds after entering the room.) His initial “clown” character is largely silent, though he’s delightfully communicative. It’s only when he puts on the masks that the voices come out.

There’s Italian for Truffaldino, the Harlequin figure who first appears and coaxes a lusty Italian response from the crowd. There’s a blustery English accent for a vain captain who tells an extraordinary tale of adventure — and this finds Wilson making expert use of a stick the size of a broom handle, which serves as everything from a boat paddle to a blow gun as the tale gets taller and taller. Sometimes, too, the languages get a little mashed up.

“Cuando I was a nino,” one character begins, telling us something about when he was a boy.

The precision is impressive as Wilson pivots between characters and fiddles with props. He plays both parts in love scenes and sword fights, and if the story slows just a touch toward the end — lots of knots to untangle — it’s still a pretty swift 80 minutes, with no intermission. Take the kids, take the parents; this is refined clowning with an appealingly personable touch.

“The Great One-Man Commedia Epic,” created and performed by Matthew R. Wilson. Through Saturday at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. About 80 minutes. Tickets $10-$20. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.factionoffools.org.