The setup is classic: One man tries to be in two places at once; comedy ensues.
Meet Matthew R. Wilson, who is directing “One Man, Two Guvnors” for 1st Stage while gearing up for his own solo show, “The Great One-Man Commedia Epic,” at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.
Wilson is getting ready by . . . not getting ready.
“It’s no fun to rehearse one-man shows,” he says about “Epic,” which is being presented by his own Faction of Fools company and which he has toured widely. “It’s the adrenaline that gets you through it. I cannot perform that show without people watching.”
Instead, Wilson has spent most November evenings tuning up “Two Guvnors,” which sets the commedia dell’arte classic “The Servant of Two Masters,” about a perpetually hungry servant slyly working for two bosses at once, in 1960s London. He stands onstage with the actors, his hands jammed in his back pockets as the performers knock each other through doors and lurch into the wings. The crash box, which creates the sound effect of lots of fragile stuff breaking noisily, gets a steady workout.
“Let’s see if we can speed all of this up,” Wilson says, snapping his fingers briskly as four actors make a clownish entrance that gets drilled again and again.
For Wilson, whose lively eyes and dangerous smile give him a terrific clown’s face, knockabout comedy is serious business. He is completing a PhD in theater and performance studies at the University of Maryland, and he contributed two chapters to the new 500-page study “The Routledge Companion to Commedia dell’Arte.” (Commedia is the 16th-century Italian comedy based on stock characters and often featuring improvisation.) As a performer, he studied and taught in Italy before working in New York, where his “Epic” swelled to two and a half hours nearly a decade ago; it’s now a sleek 80 minutes.
“It’s my version of a generic commedia dell’arte plot,” Wilson, 38, says of the show, which finds him playing multiple characters in traditional comic masks. “Calamities abound.” He improvises with the audience, and he talks about long-honed “clown-y instincts” that tingle with intuition about who he can engage and who he’d better leave alone.
He earned an MFA from the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy of Classical Acting and then founded Faction of Fools, which in 2012 won the Helen Hayes Award for outstanding emerging troupe. Typically performing during Capital Fringe festivals and at Gallaudet University, Faction has developed a reputation for taking a commedia approach — masks and all — to unexpected material, especially Shakespearean tragedies. (Comedies? Too obvious.) “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet” and even the notoriously bloody “Titus Andronicus” have been spanked by Faction’s slapstick style.
“For me, the mask is about amplifying humanity,” Wilson says. “You take a normal nose and make it longer. You make a brow’s furrows deeper. The highs get higher, and the lows are lower. That’s been the guiding aesthetic at Faction of Fools.”
Faction performer and managing director Toby Mulford says that so far, D.C. audiences have responded to the twists on classics more than to straight-up commedia romps. This spring Faction will take on Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” and then the company plans a new “Frankenstein,” adapted by Lindsey Snyder, for the citywide Women’s Voices Theatre Festival next fall.
Are there enough actors practiced in commedia’s rigors to pull off such stylized performances?
“It’s always a struggle,” says Mulford, who trained at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in California.
As Wilson founded Faction, he used “Epic” as a recruiting tool, performing here and there for a night or two and hoping to spark an interest. Actors often show up trained in movement or dance; the trick, Mulford says, is building a shared vocabulary that is commedia-specific. It takes time.
“Matt is an amazing teacher,” says fellow clown Mark Jaster, a mime who trained with Marcel Marceau. “He knows the walks and postures and characters and all that, which is really evident in his ‘One Man Epic.’ ”
Developing a skilled company is critical. In the 1990s, actor Didier Rousselet was so mesmerizing at the Jacques LeCoq movement and mime he learned in France that heavyweight D.C. actors Nancy Robinette and Arena Stage’s Richard Bauer made guest appearances with him on a minuscule stage in a Clarendon strip mall. Creating his own company was tough, though, and Rousselet’s troupe, Le Neon, soon folded.
The opposite has proven true for the movement-oriented Synetic Theatre, which originally drew attention for the electric physical style of its founders, Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili. Synetic has sustained a decade of success by building a corps of limber, disciplined performers. The ensembles are impressively balanced.
Wilson, in the “Guvnors” rehearsal, takes time with each moment as he drills down on the style, sharpening business and pinpointing timing. Wilson uses his hands as puppets to illustrate how two actors might do a quick take looking at each other, then pivoting the glance out to the audience. An actor gets a laugh from the room by using a Nazi salute as a punch line; Wilson laughs, too, then gently shoots down the gambit with “Ahhh — no.”
Nothing escapes his eye for farce. In the title role, actor Doug Wilder fiddles with a blister pack — an exploding packet meant to simulate squirting soup. He’s practicing, and on the first try it shoots all over his face.
“Could somebody get Mr. Wilder a paper towel?” the director requests after the cast’s giggling subsides. The stage empties. Wilder, his beard dripping, vanishes behind a swinging door just as somebody helpfully materializes with a wad of paper towels.
It’s not part of the show, but the timing couldn’t be better. Only Wilson sees it. With a clown’s delight, he laughs.
Through Dec. 20 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. www.factionoffools.org. $10-$20.
Through Dec. 28 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., McLean. 703-854-1856. www.1ststagetysons.org. $15-$28.