Here’s a job that you might not expect to be the sort that will prepare you to run a theatre company later in life: usher. On the other hand, maybe it’s the perfect sort of on-the-job observational training, if you’re lucky enough to work at a theatre housing a production that aligns with your own interests and inclinations. Matthew R. Wilson told me about just such an experience. He ushered the Broadway run of Urinetown for three months.
Wilson says that he was able to identify several versions of the performance, each based on the receptiveness of a particular audience. He talks about keeping score: a sequence before a quiet audience might elicit only one laugh; the same sequence before a different audience might elicit as many as seven.
Dying is easy, comedy is hard, is the punch line to the old joke about an actor on his deathbed. Yes, comedy is hard; it is also complex. Wilson talks about the process of discerning, during a performance, what show these people want, about distinguishing the differences that can occur even within a single audience. This side of the audience is rollicking with laughter; another side isn’t. How can we “bring this side along?” How can we “unify the room?”
Faction of Fools is our local company devoted to the traditions of commedia dell’Arte. As its name implies, making people laugh is a major part of that tradition. Commedia and its archetypes, of course, informed the work of France’s greatest dramatist, Molière. So, it’s no great surprise to find FoF leading off its current season with a play by Molière. Allow me, however, to be surprised with its choice from the Molière canon — Don Juan. Don Juan does have characters based on commedia archetypes, for instance, Sganarelle, the servant to Don Juan. On the other hand, it’s among the darker of Molière plays, and its story, which includes revengeful spirits and ultimate damnation, seems a better fit to Mozart’s opera version of the story than to boulevard comedy.
Oh, well, FoF is also doing Shakespeare this season. Presumably they will tackle one of the comedies. Maybe The Comedy of Errors, itself based on Plautus’ plays, would be a good fit. Nope, they will be doing Titus Andronicus. It turns out that Taffety Punk will also be tackling that early, very bloody, tragedy. It’s a rare season when one of the less frequently performed Shakespeare plays gets two productions in town.
Again, I’m surprised at that choice, but impressed by the ambition that these selections display. Although, given earlier endeavors by this five-year-old company, such as its critically acclaimed A Commedia Christmas Carol, a revival of which will also be part of the season, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
Surprise, however, is also expressed by the company’s Founding Artistic Director, Mr. Wilson, during a pre-rehearsal chat last month. (Wilson also “freely adapted” and directed Don Juan.) I get the sense that the company’s evolution over a relatively short period, as it established an identity and a track record, has been a little surprising even to him. Part of that surprise is how quickly the company has been embraced by the DC theatre community. Faction of Fools was the 2012 Helen Hayes Recipient of the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company. The company has also established a partnership with Gallaudet University.
Some of the most attractive spaces in a city with more performance organizations than performance spaces are on campuses. A movement-based company, such as FoF, is a logical fit for Gallaudet, which describes itself as “the world leader in liberal education and career development for deaf and hard of hearing students.” There are no Gallaudet students in Don Juan, which began rehearsing in August, during the summer break, but there are usually a couple of students in each FoF production at Gallaudet. In A Commedia Christmas Carol, there will be four student actors.
Partnership with a theatre company offers a university more than just opportunities for students to work in a professional environment and to establish professional connections. It also brings to the campus people who otherwise wouldn’t have reason to find themselves there. For campuses off the beaten track, that can only raise their profile in the community.
As anyone who has taken certain routes to the burgeoning scene at H Street NE knows, Gallaudet is quite close to that new hub of urban nightlife. And as anyone who has experienced the frustration of finding parking when going to a show on H Street will no doubt appreciate, it’s a big plus that Gallaudet is not only within walking distance of Metro, but also has plentiful on-site parking.
One of the productions in the FoF season, Pinocchio!, won’t be at Gallaudet, but will be at NextStop in Herndon. That is the professional reincarnation of the very ambitious community theatre Elden Street Players. Meanwhile, at Gallaudet last month, FoF were several weeks out from tech rehearsals, previews, and opening night, and were rehearsing on the very stage they will use. That is almost unheard of, and is a real benefit, enabling them to solve many staging issues before the pressure-cooker environment leading up to opening.
Listening to Wilson talk about Don Juan, the play seems quite contemporary in its concerns. He describes the famously hedonistic leading character as an “iconic archetype,” as someone who “sucks the marrow out of life with no understanding of how it affects the people around him,” as someone who is “a lot of fun to be with, but, when he leaves you, he’s hurt you.”
We probably all know people like that. Brett Easton Ellis novels are replete with characters like that. I guess that speaks to the importance and resilience of the entire concept of archetypes.
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Wilson cautions against “a clear and simple connection” between commedia and these successor idioms. I think, though, that is part of what makes companies like FoF so important and instructive. We see the analogues of time-tested archetypes in contemporary culture, as we appreciate the experience of a continuation of tradition, what Wilson calls “Commedia’s centuries-old tradition of physical story-telling.”
And did I mention masks? It was fun to watch the actors as they interacted with some newly presented masks. They will need them to distinguish characters, as the cast includes only five actors, two of whom play Don Juan and Sganarelle, the other three of whom play everyone else. Masks also help take the piece out of a realistic world and into the somewhat more stylized context of commedia.
Check out the work Faction of Fools, in residence at Gallaudet University, where Don Juan runs through Oct. 6. For tickets, or for more information about the company and its entire season, visit www.factionoffools.org.