When in The Lady Becomes Him, the caption board goes on strike (it’s “union!”), the actors must resort to using English, Italian, and American Sign Language to wage war for love, and their multi-talented-and-lingual forces collide in rollicking good fun.
Faction of Fools Theatre Company has invented this confection from a 17th centure bare-bones, classic Neapolitian commedia dell’arte scenario. But there’s nothing fustian or academic about this production. It lands on the shores of Gallaudet College as delicious as freshly-made pasta con ricotta through the charming and artful collaboration of a handful of actors, some of whom are deaf, a couple of musicians, and two interpreters.
Together they dig into the theme of love, how young lovers will use any foolish means they can to communicate with each other, thereby breaking down barriers of culture, language, and societal strictures– even if they have to grab an interpreter or use a caption board to do so!
Good old farce and stock commedia characters provide the plot, all immediately recognizable. There’s the old Dottore (Doctor) who keeps his young restless wife, Celia, at home out of jealous misgivings. Rightly so, as she hankers for young love and finds her man in Orazio. Her next-door neighbor, the beautiful Isabella, also has designs on Orazio, but she is beloved by the “foreigner” Luzio. While Orazio presses Dottore’s servant Pulcinella into service to win his suit (with the help of a sorcerer and magical identity-switching rings,) Isabella’s servant Rosetta must serve as her mistress’ translator for love while manipulating her own affairs with boyfriend Pulcinella and new-found musician lover, Orazio’s servant Coviello.
Love, indeed, comes in all shapes, lusts and languages. Isabella (Amelia Hensley) and Luzio (James McGowan) discover love slowly in what can only be described as a ballet of butterfly hands. These two performers cover the stage with such elegance and lightness that it is sheer pleasure to watch them raise a gestural vocabulary to such a fine art. Orazio (Stephen Hock) woos his Celia with ardent poetry, as moonstruck as any Romeo, and succeeds as the leading “juvenile” character to be both believable and at times screamingly funny.
The ravenous Rosetta finds her appetite surfeited only in pursuing two loves at once – one through the language of music, and the other through a mutual obsession with food. Rachel Spicknall Mulford switches deliciously from doting soulfully as Coviello’s music pupil to pouncing upon and all but devouring her mate Pulcinella. While Coviello (Jesse Terril) is cold then hot towards this most available female, the man is no match for Rosetta’s legional appetites.
We in the audience can immediately spot the bickering and shouting she engages in with her Pulcinella to be as familiar as any marriage bond of certain married couples and as necessary to these two as food and sex.
Lindsey D. Snyder plays Celia, Dottore’s wife with what starts out to be pretty stock mixture of simpering silliness and whining. But when she and Pulcinella (John V. Bellomo) switch identities, these two really have some fun in gender-bending personifications. He/she discovers life laced up in women’s corsets and heavy petticoats is no picnic and peels off the layers onstage, while she/he enjoys the physical liberation and emotional entitlement of the Italian male.
Performer Bellomo is a master of this style. His ease on stage moving in and out of spontaneous improvisation reminds me how deceptively simple this genre is. Seemingly unflappable, he turns to three latecomers who arrived late due to Friday night’s storm and welcomes them, recaps what they’ve missed, and doesn’t miss a beat of the show. As Pulcinella, he wears the classic mask of the character but drops the usual high-peeping voice of this favorite character from Italian commedia.
Bellomo takes a typically written direction (“They do a love scene…with lazzi”) and just keeps on dishing out the fun. His “dueling” dialogue with rival Terrill‘s Coviello, as the two match each other line for line in rhyme, he using the language of food and Terrill using the language of musical forms, is masterful in its inventiveness.
In enjoying a good commedia dell’Arte, one can’t leave out Il Dottore, who provides some villainy to spice up the plot, but all in good fun. In donning the classical leather mask of the character, Matthew Pauli makes it truly come alive with its puggy dog nose constantly sniffing the air for possible infidelities and the wild, white eyebrows and whiskers fluttering indignantly. His pedantic doctor is both hopelessly silly and memorable.
The Lady Becomes Him
Closes May 12, 2013
Eastman Studio Theatre – Elstad Annex
800 Florida Avenue, NE
1 hour, 30 minutes without intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
However, he can’t resist pontificating philosophically, and the whole evening falls apart as actors quit, the set falls apart, and the old man is carried off prone still spouting nonsense.
The set by Daniel Flint has brought to life all evening in charming microcosm the old world of Naples. The houses’ canvas “walls” lashed to poles and laundry hanging from clotheslines provide for much comic business, while Chris Holland provides appropriate sunny lighting. The costumes by Lynly Saunders stand out as they should for this actor-centric theatrical form. Jesse Terrill does triple duty masterfully as performer, composer, and onstage musician.
The whole show never misses a beat under Toby Mulford’s skillful understanding of the commedia dell’Arte form in this, his directorial debut in Washington. He ably brings out the “languages” and capabilities of the individual performers to show them off at best advantage and even incorporates the ASL interpreters in several creative ways.
So, whatever language you use out in the world, bring it on over to Gallaudet’s black box theatre and become part of the foolishness. It will all translate to tickle your funny bone.
The Lady Becomes Him . Directed by Toby Mulford . Featuring John Bellomo, Amelia Hensley, Stephen Hock, James McGowan, Rachel Spicknall Mulford, Matthew Pauli, Lindsey D. Snyder, Jesse Terrill . Produced by Faction of Fools . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.