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.
Through Feb. 4. Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. www.factionoffools.org. $10-$25.