Review: A COMMEDIA ROMEO AND JULIET at Faction Of Fools Theatre Company

Shakespeare gets the Commedia dell'Arte treatment

By: Jan. 24, 2024
Review: A COMMEDIA ROMEO AND JULIET at Faction Of Fools Theatre Company
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Commedia dell’Arte was a theatrical style that developed in Italy more than 450 years ago. Intended for the lower classes, with exuberant physical movement, improvisation, lots of masks and stock characters like the Harlequin and Pulcinella, it was a celebratory perfect for the carnivale circuit.

Now in its 15th season, D.C.’s Faction of Fools Theatre Company has been staging work exclusively in the Commedia dell’Arte style. Currently, it’s bringing back a well received “A Commedia Romeo and Juliet” conceived and directed by the company’s founding artistic director Matthew R. Wilson that was last staged in 2012.

Now, one would think the famous tragedy, with its battles and ultimate deaths of the young couple at hand, wouldn’t quite fit with a Commedia dell’Arte style, or that it at least must be done in a manner that spoofs the classic. But artistic director Karen Zoerb, who studied Commedia dell’Arte in Arezzo, Italy, says Shakespeare was heavily influenced by the very same theatrical form.

Indeed, the zippy production (70 minutes flat) uses verbatim, familiar lines from the original folio even as other aspects of the production approach farce.

There was apparently so much interest in this “Romeo and Juliet” that two separate casts were assembled to perform it. One is called the Montague cast; the other, the Capulet cast. Unlike the similarly named families in the play, there are no reports of fighting among them. To the contrary, the program notes “there will be occasions performers swap casts.” 

Most of the five performers in each cast are mostly behind masks (marvelously designed by Tara Cariaso of Waxing Moon Masks) enabling them to become lots of different characters — sometimes within the same scene. And when they run out of actors to represent characters or scattered bodies, they sometimes toss a dummy in there. 

The opening matinee I saw was the Capulet cast, with Travis Xavier Brown, Natalie Cutcher, Bri Houtman, Ben Lauer and Robert Pike — all revved up with exuberance from the moment they burst onto the modest stage set designed by Johnny Weissgerber (whose “wet paint” sign on a back wall could be a joke or authentic — something you could also say about the performances).

The main prop on stage was a versatile box that could be taken apart and put back together in various configurations. Originally designed by Daniel Flint and refurbished by Weissgerber, it could stand (not very tall) as the famous balcony, but it could also hold costumes and masks anyone could quickly change into on the fly. 

Jesse Terrill’s original music added to the occasional cartoonish feel of the acting style, with each physical expression given an extra emphasis, if only because a lot of the facial expressions remained frozen behind the beautiful masks. A prolific range of vocal styles also helped establish a much larger cast than they had actors to play. 

In press materials, Faction of Fools “acknowledge[s] the harm inherent in the theatrical form,” saying Commedia dell’Arte in its early days was “steeped in European white supremacy, misogyny, and predatory capitalism.” Therefore the company strives for “a form of masked physical comedy that is more accessible, more inclusive, more timely, and therefore more vital and rich.”

That certainly happens with the diverse cast, who change gender and position many times in their hour on stage, but mostly because they’re so busy switching characters with a sense of adventurous fun that eclipses any overarching manifesto. 

Running time: About 70 minutes, no intermission.

Photo credit: Natalie Cutcher (L), Bri Houtman (R), from top to bottom: Robert Pike, Ben Lauer, Travis Xavier Brown. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

“A Commedia Romeo and Juliet” by the Faction of Fools Theatre Company continues through Feb. 3 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington. Tickets available online.