Let’s raise a glass to any theatre company foolish enough to slot Romeo and Juliet into their season in this day and age. It’s not that the star-crossed lovers turned to dust centuries ago — warming up cold spirits is one of theatre’s greatest tricks. It’s that these two kids are brought back to the stage hundreds of times a year, all over the world. What trick does Faction of Fools have up their laced sleeves to get us excited about this old chestnut? What’s new?
Here, director Matthew R. Wilson might shake his head at us. For a commedia dell’arte theatre company, it’s not the new, but the old, that matters. And a golden oldie like Romeo and Juliet is a splendid fit for the skills of his troupe precisely because of its age and origins.
The commedia form, begun in Italy in the 16th century, relies on familiar stories acted out by stock character types. Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, set in Italy and also written in the 16th century, features young lovers, wicked relatives, a comedic servant, a spry lothario, a few pompous elders… Ah-ha. Got it.
If we are in fact raising a glass, then, go easy on the pour, because the effect of watching this Romeo and Juliet feels something akin to chugging champagne. Faction of Fools sails through this brisk adaptation with a barely-bottled energy that keeps things perpetually popping without running dry (the text has been axed to 80 minutes by Wilson, who directs, and Paul Reisman, who appears in the show).
The script, which sticks entirely to the Bard’s own words save for some occasional flickers of ad libbing, sails so quickly from scene to scene that the five multi-cast players (Gwen Grastorf as mostly-Juliet, Drew Kopas as mostly-Romeo, plus Reisman, Toby Mulford, and Eva Wilhelm in many roles) might as well be on Rollerblades for how smoothly and speedily they arrive at the next moment.
Such rigorous play demands dexterity and constant, Muppet-level doses of energy. But don’t pity the fools. They’re aided by some great original music, composed by Jesse Terrill, which underscores the show with whimsical arrangements and a folksy bounce. The actors are also helped in huge part by Lynly A. Saunders’s quickly-convertible costume pieces, as well as an ingenious rolling wooden chest designed by Daniel Flint, which arrives onstage as one big box but then cubes itself into new shapes and arrangements, re-forming constantly throughout the show. It’s the Optimus Prime of prop trunks, and we enjoy each iteration as the newest solution to an ongoing challenge: We need a set. Here are some boxes. Go!
We get a good groundwork laid from this fast, goofy rhythm, plus all the fun with masks (stock characters, as we’ve mentioned, pull this production forward), but it really starts to get funny when the slapstick and physical humor kicks in. Funnier still are the moments when the players must adjust the convention of a scene halfway through, as when Romeo and Juliet each rest on a tower of cubes, pining for each other, but have to awkwardly (and amusingly) try to scootch their perches closer to each other without getting down. Think kids on a swingset who need a push but can’t get it, and you get the idea.
Although we appreciate the project as we watch — the company’s attempts to utilize stock-ness, rather than avoid it, create some interesting moments — for much of the play we stay one degree away from truly connecting emotionally. The select scenes that drop some of the commedia pretense (Juliet’s argument with her parents is one example) get towed instead by the actor’s best instincts on acting Shakespeare sans masks, and the results can be a little splashy.
But in many moments, the heart of the drama does indeed shine through to affect us, often by surprise. And this payoff arrives precisely because of the degree of respect the company shows the play itself. Although jokes flow throughout, virtually none of them attempt to undermine the original needs of the story at hand, and we’re the better for it.
Sprinkle on some creative swordplay (Wilson is also a seasoned fight choreographer), a wonderfully demented sequence where the carrying of a dead body — played by a live actor — becomes a sort of ballet unto itself, plus some fun solutions to the perpetual quandary of not-enough-actors-for-all-the-roles, and you have yourself a novel product: a refreshingly old-school classic with modern-day flair. If only Billy Shakes himself could come, laugh, clap, help pack it up, and roll it all out for us.
A Commedia Romeo and Juliet
Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted by Paul Reisman and Matthew R. Wilson
Directed by Matthew R. Wilson
Produced by Faction of Fools Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes without intermission