It’s not every day that you can watch live Shakespeare performed in your backyard. So, when I saw the poster at the library announcing Faction of Fools playing A Commedia Romeo and Juliet at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn, I knew what I’d be doing last Friday night. The Arts Barn is not quite in my backyard, but it is pretty much walking distance from my house.
What fun! First let me describe A Faction of Fools. They perform Commedia dell’Arte — a Renaissance theatre style. From their website:
Commedia dell’Arte, which translates as “professional theatre,” began in Italy in the early 16th Century and quickly spread throughout Europe, creating a lasting influence on Shakespeare, Molière, opera, vaudeville, contemporary musical theatre, television sit-coms, and improv comedy. The style of Commedia is characterized by its use of masks, improvisation, physical comedy, and recognizable character types—young lovers, wily servants, greedy old men, know-it-all professors, boasting heroes, and the like. The legacy of Commedia includes the first incorporated (i.e. professional) theatre company, the first European actresses, and many of the themes and storylines still enjoyed by audiences today.
In the director’s notes, it is pointed out that Shakespeare drew on Commedia in his work. “Shakespeare knew their style, their characters, and their conventions… he borrowed liberally from their material.”
Romeo and Juliet is very much a comedy at the beginning. But comedy (in the traditional sense) ends in a wedding. In R&J the wedding comes too early, and in fact marks the play’s turn toward tragedy. The bodies start piling up as soon as the wedding is over.
The Faction of Fools’ Artistic Director, Matthew Wilson, points out:
Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized that this play is a comedy set on edge. The text is riddled with jokes and humorous excess; the characters are fantastical. Though we think of this play as ‘romantic’ or tragic,’ Shakespeare wanted his audiences to laugh. Then in the midst of laughter, the knife falls. Tragedy shows up when we least expect it, and the mournful tear is all the harsher because it has been matched with joy.
I thought this was fascinating to consider… that the audience would have been familiar with the plot formula and the standard characters and would be expecting the standard comedy structure with the play ending happily with a wedding. Instead, R&J twists that formula upside down and all hell breaks loose after the wedding. What a shock that must have been to Shakespeare’s audience! Really, what a shock, and how much more upsetting all the mishaps that lead to the awful ending.
So, the point of this Faction of Fools production is to emphasize the comedy — the Commedia — that inspired Shakespeare to write this play. There are five players who switch parts by donning masks, wigs and aprons and pulling the aprons over their shoulders to look like capes. The comedy is physical, almost slapstick, and very fun. Even as bodies appear, the tone is light, players who must take on another role are replaced by large rag dolls and onward they go to the bitter end.
It’s a fun production and would be great for kids — it’s only an hour long and there’s a bit of sword play. The Arts Barn is a nice venue — just 99 seats, so you always feel close to the action on stage. The show continues through January 26, but if you can’t make it to Gaithersburg, I found a video of them doing the same show at the Kennedy Center last year. Enjoy!
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