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.
Wren is a freelancer writer.
Adapted from Shakespeare by Paul Reisman and Matthew R. Wilson. Directed by Wilson; sound design, Thomas Sowers; mask design, Aaron Cromie. 80 minutes. Through Feb. 4 at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.factionoffools.org.