A man walks on to the stage, accompanied by friends. It is night, and he is a decade older than he was that morning. He has buried his young daughter today – dead, suddenly and inexplicably, less than a fortnight before she was to marry. He is inconsolable. She was his hope for the future, and now he has no future. He will never be free from sadness again.
A few paces away, another man stands. He has some sympathy for the older gentleman, all twisted up in grief as he is, but he cannot suppress a small inward smile either. He knows – as her father does not – that the young woman is not dead but merely in a deathlike coma. She could not tolerate the man her father would make her marry, for she loved another. So she drank down a subtle poison, which made her appear to be dead, knowing that when she awoke her beloved would be at her side, and they would soon be off on a new life together.
You know this story, don’t you? Well, I thought I did too – until I discovered it was not Romeo and Juliet but La creduta morta– “The Lady Who Was Believed Dead” – a commedia dell’arte masterpiece of the middle 16th century by Flaminio Scala. La creduta morta, like all commedia, is improvisation. The script is all stage directions: “Asking Flavio to escort Isabella to her house, Oratio leaves, and Isabella tells Flavio that she is in love with him. Flavio speaks sweet words of comfort to her as they arrive at the door of her house and knock.” And so on. It is up to the actors to invent the specifics.
Well. Shakespeare was a little more, um, directive. And Romeo and Juliet is more than a twice-told tale; Shakespeare certainly derived it in large part from The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, Arthur Brooke’s verse translation of Matteo Bandello’s novel; Rafello Borghini’s La donna costante may have had an impact, as well. And there were other influences, stretching back to Pyramus and Thisbe.
What’s more, the scene I just described was a point of departure between Shakespeare and Scala. For the Bard, the feigned death was the culmination of a series of clever schemes and good intentions – by Juliet, by her father, by Romeo, by the Prince, by Friar Lawrence – gone horribly wrong, and leading to the bleakest of tragedies. For Scala, it was the opening of a farce – involving abductions, mistaken identities, cross-dressing (“…the Captain arrives, and, thinking Pedrolino is a woman, begins to make love with him. Going along with the pretense, Pedrolino responds amorously to his love-making.” That must have been interesting).
There’s no doubt that Romeo and Juliet and La creduta morta told the same story. But they were different types of stories, in form and intention. Scala’s play was a gigglefest, and Shakespeare’s was one of the world’s great tragedies. And yet…within the walls and layers of Shakespeare’s Verona, there are tiny spots which make you bark out in surprised laughter: the efforts at wit by the Capulet servitors, opening the play, which only reach half their mark; Romeo’s outsized yearning for Rosalind, and Benvolio’s dry response to it; the yammering, addlepated Nurse and her moronic servant Peter Potpan (played always, in Shakespeare’s company, by the great comedian Will Kemp); the howling hysteria of Juliet’s family when she appears to die so inconveniently close to her wedding; the general overwrought emotion everywhere.
Could it really be that this great Shakespearean tragedy is really…a comedy?
Let’s ask somebody who might know. Let’s ask the Faction of Fools.
* * *
I am sitting in a rehearsal room in Gallaudet University’s Elstad Auditorium – a large, well-lit room comfortable against the December night. They are staging the first read-through of Romeo and Juliet; in civilian clothes, without masks, no dialect. There is food, and a little wine. Consistent with the commedia tradition, each actor plays several roles. Gwen Grastorf plays Juliet, but she is also the mighty Prince of Verona and the servant Balthazar. Drew Kopas is Romeo, and also Romeo’s father, Lord Montague. Toby Mulford is Paris, the slimy suitor Juliet’s father wants her to marry, as well as the Nurse and Romeo’s buddy Benvolio. Paul Riesman is the mercurial Mercutio, and also Juliet’s rageful dad, Lord Capulet. Eva Wilhelm plays Lady Capulet, the scheming Friar Lawrence, and the murderous Tybalt, whose death eventually brings down the houses of Montague and Capulet.
Matthew R. Wilson plays multiple roles, too. He is Artistic Director of the Faction of Fools, and director of this play. Also, he brought commedia to Washington. Two years ago he presented – maybe “exploded” is a better word – something called The Great One-Man Commedia Epic before crowds of startled people. One of the startled people was our reviewer, Rosalind Lacy, who wrote:
“…[he] is a breath of fresh air, a Miracle Man, a robust Harlequin with many faces. From the moment Wilson somersaults on stage and stares at us in terror and runs for the nearest EXIT, he throws us off-guard. A master of many masks, he’s an acrobat full of surprises, able to yank an audience right out of its seats, to tip the world topsy-turvy, to prick any bubble of arrogance, and that includes our illusions about romance.”
This is the business of commedia; to be unpredictable, to throw us off our balance. As if in contradiction, commedia starts with stock characters – the miserly old man; the self-important man of letters; the wily servant; the shrewish wife; and protagonists too, men and women of virtue, for whom we might have sympathy. Of course, these stereotypes will be familiar to lovers of Shakespeare as well.
Commedia is no longer a one-man epic, at least in Washington. Faction of Fools has twenty-four members in its company now, including a Managing Director (Wilson’s wife Sarah, formerly the Public Programs Assistant at Folger Shakespeare Library), a Director of Education and Development (Denise Perrino, a teacher who developed the Theater Arts curriculum for Fairfax County Public Schools), and a Director of Public Relations (Rachel Spicknall, an actor who has worked in Russia and Poland, among other places.) They are ensconced in a good performance space at Gallaudet, with whom they collaborate – although they’ll be doing Romeo and Juliet in Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint Gallery.
Faction of Fools is a member of the European cultural association SAT, which is dedicated to preserving commedia dell’arte. The company is the international coordinator for Commedia dell’Arte Day (February 25).
The actors are sitting back in their chairs, ready to go, but Wilson is trying to give the rest of us some context. “This is going to be physical,” he explains, meaning the production, not the read-through. He is not exactly nervous, but he has too much energy to sit quietly. “For example, the balcony for the balcony scene might be created by other actors, holding up Romeo and Juliet” – a technique used, among others, by Synetic. The actors nod, interested; they have done this sort of thing before, and have the technical training to hold each other up without suffering terminal backstrain.
Wilson doesn’t use the word “comedy”. He doesn’t have to. Mulford gives Benvolio an air of weary tolerance as he reviews Romeo’s incendiary romantic history with him and the veteran Kopas immediately matches him with the protagonist’s misplaced enthusiasms; they become the Martin and Lewis of love. Reisman immediately makes Mercutio straddle the territory between the comic and the schizophrenic; imagine Robin Williams with the strings pulled a little tighter. And Mulford gives Paris an air of such preposterous arrogance that you immediately wonder why he isn’t making the rounds to the voters in South Carolina. (“He practiced all the time while we were in the car” to visit relatives over the Thanksgiving holiday, Spicknall, his fiancée, revealed.)
Wilson has reduced the script to its bare essentials: “this two hours’ traffic of our stage” clocks in at barely an hour in the read-through, and as the actors conclude Wilson spots another candidate for excision: a lengthy, and redundant speech by Friar Lawrence at the end. “What we remove from the text we can recapture through movement and gesture,” he says, meaning it.
But it’s what Faction of Fools adds to the text, rather than what they remove from it, that gives this version its unique savor. “Most productions that take themselves seriously miss how funny Shakespeare’s text is,” Wilson says. He smiles, thinking of “Juliet’s oscillating emotions in the balcony scene,” and does an impromptu recitation. “Swear,” he says. “No, do not swear at all.” He recalls the preposterous scene in which Juliet’s near and dear mistake her elixir-induced swoon for death and respond with what sounds like a poetry slam. “When she takes the sleeping potion, her loved ones make total fools of themselves lamenting her death in the loftiest and most tortured poetry,” he says. “Many productions severely cut this scene because it is impossible to listen to them go on without laughing at the excess of it.” But, he points out, “that’s how Shakespeare wrote it.”
So has Faction of Fools turned Romeo and Juliet into a death-drunk version of, say, Midsummer Night’s Dream? Not on your life. “Laughter is no trivial matter,” Wilson says. “A lot of the things we find funny are the very things that we can’t bear to look out without laughing.”
What does he mean? He talks about Mercutio, the play’s great wit, who – well, you know what happens to him. “He is a showman, and he is cracking jokes all the way to the grave in a way that makes his death all the more poignant. He tries not to take death seriously, but death is serious nonetheless. And because he has made us laugh, we don’t want to see him go.”
Or consider Juliet, whose faux-death receives such a comic salute. “When Juliet is actually dead, the same characters react very differently,” Wilson says. “It is as though Shakespeare wants the audience to arrive at Juliet’s tomb with a recollection of how funny her ‘borrowed likeness’ of death was before. But the real thing is not funny, and it stings all the more in comparison.”
“It’s not our project to make Romeo and Juliet into a farce,” Wilson insists, “but rather to use the lens of comedy to bring tragedy into focus.” He thinks for a minute. “I suppose our version is quite literally a tragedy as seen through the eyes of a fool.”