To borrow a phrase from Gene Kelly in “Anchors Aweigh”, The 2nd Annual Fool for All, directed and devised by Matthew R. Wilson, is not for grouchers, groaners, cranks, and moaners. It’s a feel-good show designed for people who appreciate silliness and folly: 43 actors have created a total of 9 scenes (4 on view each night) using Commedia dell’Arte characters to tell tales linked by avian themes and puns.
The evening’s charm comes from the corniness of the humor and the ingenuity of the story-telling. Through gestures and words, these performers embody their roles: Isabella’s yearning for love sets her body on a diagonal, leaning into romantic destiny. The bouncy gestures of the Zanni call to mind rambunctious cartoon characters. This combination of physical expression and wholesome humor made me think of Gene Kelly’s aesthetic: thoroughly enjoyable and light-hearted.
A terrific feature of this performance is its inclusivity: the tales’ characters – old or young, male or female – are easily recognizable through their body language and interpreters provide translation of their spoken words into American Sign Language. These details add to the richness of the show: it is not only something to be enjoyed by diverse audiences, but also keeps us aware of how pliable and powerful languages – both verbal and visual – can be.
Except for a scene with some feathery yellow chicken outfits, the actors wear black pants and tops. I love this because it draws my attention to the incredible Commedia dell’Arte masks (designed by Antonio Fava) and the actors’ physicality. There’s a ton of creativity in scenes using long dowels as guns or bird wings, depending on the story being told.
The program changes each evening: on view opening night were “Pantalone Had a Farm, E-I-E-I-O,” with performers using both spoken words and ASL to tell a tale of chicken farmers and a disgruntled boss (although this scene involved a raw egg, the salmonella risk was quickly diverted). “The Birds & The Bees” was a falling-in-love-reluctantly story featuring a charming couple: Justus Hammond as Flavio and Jessica Shearer-Wilson as Isabella. “Hunting Foul” was a hilarious predicament involving three pairs of Capitano and Zanni tracking down prey. “Songbirds” included a cast of il Dottore, Capitano, Pantalone, and several Zanni characters wooing Isabella with singing and music (instruments included a viola, guitar, drum, flute, and squeezebox). Their last tune lingered in my head as I left the theater.
Last October, when I met Matthew R. Wilson and watched him teach a workshop with his company, Faction of Fools, he spoke about Commedia dell’Arte presenting a balance between disciplined preparation and spontaneous play.
The great thing about this show is there’s plenty of play. The humor is goofy: in “Hunting Foul” when one of the Zanni, dressed as a chicken, takes a long time to die after being shot, a character says “who knew a chicken could be such a ham?” It can also be witty: a Capitano with a plump figure introduces himself as “Captain Slenderoso of the Irony Clan.”
Thinking about what made these zany characters and outlandish scenarios so appealing I realize that much of our celebrity news and reality TV shows are filled with similar stock characters: bossy wives, braggarts, love struck couples, and hapless workers. It’s refreshing to see a troupe of players make fun of this pretense and pomposity, and to do it so well with such simple means.
2nd Annual Fool for All: Tales of Courage and Poultry has 4 more performances at The Mountain – at Mount Vernon Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave, Washington, DC.