BWW Reviews: Alley Theatre's World Premiere of FOOL Offers More Laughs Than Substance
Theresa Rebeck, whose extensive writing credits include creating the NBC musical drama SMASH, is having her work produced at the Alley Theatre for the fifth time. Prolific in her craft, Theresa Rebeck made her Broadway debut with MAURITIUS, and recently had her plays SEMINAR and DEAD ACCOUNTS produced on Broadway. However, I wouldn't expect to see FOOL playing the Great White Way in the near future. The script has it's own brand of light-hearted charm, and it makes for a decent comedy; yet, when the play is over, it just doesn't stick with you.
In the Playbill, Theresa Rebeck tells Brandon Weinbrenner, Resident Assistant Director of the Alley Theatre, that FOOL was inspired by the hierarchical power systems present in corporate environments. She notes that her co-workers in corporate entities "spent all their time in Machiavellian intrigue, sucking up to their bosses, trying to climb the corporate ladder using other people's heads as footstools." In essence, the power struggle that strips away all semblances of equality and the ensuing sycophancy brought on by desperation are the basis for this comedy.
FOOL, set in a 14th century castle's sub-kitchen, utilizes the modern vernacular to tell a story where two kings, who are close to warring with one another, decide to have a jester competition instead. The funniest jester lives, the other is beheaded. Yet, the plot is full of farcical complications. Two goons, serving King Alfred, have their own opinions about the contest and willfully share them. The strident kitchen wench has plenty social commentary of her own to share. King William and his Queen make appearances, adding layers of intrigue to the production as they reveal secrets of their own. Then, of course, the two jesters at the center of the conflict are left to buckle under the pressure of the competition.
Gregory Boyd's direction of FOOL highlights its dazzling physical comedy, making the production feel like a marginally successful attempt at recreating the hysterical fervor of a beloved Month Python skit. Bawdy innuendos occur in the various stage pictures created, while mistaken identities, slapstick humor, and pratfalls abound. All of the evening's physical comedy earned riotous laughter from the opening night audience, but a majority of the meaningful subtext present in the script did not pass beyond the fourth wall of the set. The likeness to the absurdity of corporate power struggles can surely be seen in the production, but only after the audience is told to look for them. In the performance these deeper meanings simply do not resonate on their own.
Leading the cast, Jeremy Webb as Stuart and Elizabeth Bunch as Joss are both likeable and deftly funny. As the jesters with a lot to lose, their ability to keep a sense of humor in the face of death is a true testament to the resilience of human nature. Their stakes are high, and both Jeremy Webb and Elizabeth Bunch ensure that the audience doesn't want to see either of their characters unjustly beheaded at the fleeting whim of their kings.
As the kitchen wench Lizabeth, Carine Montbertrand captivates the audience. She is perhaps the most witty character of the show, devising plans to save both the jesters all while spewing social commentary about the irrationality of monarchical power. She capably delivers every ounce of the rare, but rich, subtext that passes beyond the fourth wall and lands in the minds of the audience.
Sean Dugan (as Marvel) and Joey Collins (as Elliot) skillfully play King Alfred's two lackeys. While individually named, like William Shakespeare's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the pair exists as one entity. Both men manipulate and contort their voices into awkward parlances, which earns laughter each time they speak in addition to delightfully undermining their aura of menace. Yet, where words fail, they use violence to intimidate, making them dangerous every time they are on stage.
Jeffrey Bean's King William is regarded as a good, loving king. In actuality, it seems he just knows how to diffuse situations by offering appeasing words. Like a Shakespearean tragic figure, he is drunk on his own power, a victim of his hubris, and seemingly the most foolish character in the play.
Playing King William's queen, Alma Cuervo creates a maniacally scheming character. All wide eyes and frightening grimaces, the humor in her character comes from how depraved and out of touch with reality her own ambitions have made her. Her characterization of the Queen answers the question, "What if Lady Macbeth had found herself in a comedy?"
As a comedy, Theresa Rebeck's FOOL succeeds in earning laughter, and last night's opening night audience seemed to be really eating it up. Unlike the brayers in the audience, I found myself chuckling and rolling my eyes at the comic moments more than anything else and wondering if without the brayers, would the rest of us be laughing. Much like the cast repeatedly says, "When the king laughs, everyone laughs." Effectively, those brayers were like the laugh tracks on a TV sitcom, and I think they more or less served to remind the rest of us what was supposed to make us laugh out loud.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission.
The World Premiere of Theresa Rebeck's FOOL, produced by the Alley Theatre, plays on the Alley's Hubbard Stage at 615 Texas Avenue, Houston, 77002 now though March 16, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. For tickets and more information please visit http://www.alleytheatre.org or call (713) 220-5700.
All photos courtesy of the Alley Theatre.
Carine Montbertrand as Lizabeth. Photo by Michal Daniel.