If you are looking for entertaining theatre this holiday and begin to yawn at the thought of enduring one more Christmas Carol, head down to the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW) for Matthew R. Wilson in The Great One-Man Commedia Epic. Billed as “1 actor. 12 characters.1000 catastrophes,” you will take in more people and plots than your table groaned Thanksgiving dishes, and besides, Wilson packs more wallop in this have-masks-will-travel show than theatres with ten times the stage dressings and budget.
Wilson knows his Commedia dell’Arte having studied, performed and taught the popular street form of theatre in Italy for eight years before founding Faction of Fools in the Washington area.
He first presented this work back in 2004, with the help of exquisite leather masks by Antonio Fava from Reggio-Emilia, Italy. Fava’s handcrafted masks are museum-worthy, so burnished they glow and seem to react like skin as they are brought to life with exquisite skill by Wilson.
It’s serious business for Wilson, who laid out the masks on a table, covered in cloth, that looked more like an altar, and indeed there is something sacred about a great mask. When the very first mask was slipped on, Wilson’s body reacted like he’d been shot through with high voltage electricity, and instantly he was transformed into the slightly dim-witted servant, Truffaldino. Throughout the evening, Wilson would return to the table and pluck up one mask after another to embody the shape, walk and talk of the individual characters. Sometimes the action moved so swiftly it necessitated that the masks serve more like puppets, handheld and interacting directly with each other.
Wilson has an uncanny ability to transform the lower half of his face and his whole body to “fit” these Commedia masks. He seemed to gain chins and jowls for the pedantic, nonsense-speaking Dottore Graziano, whose red mask features a bulbous nose and stiff tuffs of whiskers sprouting all over his face that somehow reminded me of a slightly-dazed reindeer. His Pantalone, white whiskered and palsied, seemed to shrink Wilson’s body to about half his regular size, while his Scapino mask boasted a wide-mouthed eagerness combined with a ferocious overbite that suggested a kind of zany recklessness. I wanted to see more of this favorite Commedia “zanni” character.
On one level the show is a kind of a primer of who’s who in the line-up of Commedia dell’Arte’s stock characters. Wilson has devised a typically kooky Commedia plot, borrowing from several sources, where lovers are foiled while fathers are trying to broker the best marriage deal for themselves, and the servants run around getting involved in their masters’ business with some seizing opportunities to advance themselves in mischief of their own.
THE GREAT ONE-MAN COMMEDIA EPIC
Closes December 20, 2014
Capitol Hill Arts Workshop
545 7th Street, SE
1 hour, 25 minutes, no intermission
Thursdays thru Saturdays
Some of my favorite moments of the evening were inspired by the Captains. There were three rolled into this show. The Captain archetype has its roots in Roman comedy and represents the bombastic braggart, who thinks of himself as a great warrior and lover of women, but in truth, despite an often anatomically-misplaced, overly-large nose suggesting virility, there’s not much there.
Wilson chose to give his three captains different accents and culturally stereotypical behaviors. El Capitán del Corazón Solitario entered Pantalone’s home in the middle of the night, but instead of moving stealthily to seduce Pantalone’s Signora he launches with noisy and dramatic flare into a flamenco song accompanied by guitar. His Castilian accent made the butchered Spanglish even funnier. “I want to sing” became “ I want to ‘th’ing,” and there was much ado about his “cora-‘th’on.”
The British Captain Major Brigadier General Montgomery John Wells Smith, complete with walking stick, was even funnier, and his long recounting of his escapades in the Franco-Prussio-Chino Wars of the Roses may have been the stand-out scene of the night. Wilson pulled off not only a fabulous extended monologue but exquisite physical control as the British Captain who got hit by a poison dart, fell off a cliff through the jungle, floated, falling “past the birds,” rode a log through the roiling waters fighting off crocodiles, and more – all in a day’s work.
Matthew R. Wilson performing in the original 2010 production
A French Captain joins the other two in La Signora’s bedroom where Wilson manages to have us gasping for breath, as well as himself, with Capitaine Jean Grammelot’s fractured French. Recounting the Capitaine’s exploits on the battlefield, he reveals himself to be a gourmand, having to interrupt his fighting to describe in detail a meal he had in the field. Lucky for him, the onion and garlic alone caused his enemies to faint away.
It’s all so much silliness, and as audience we are all drawn in to assist the performance. There were birdcalls in the jungle, Pantalone’s snoring, Truffaldino’s cleaning sounds, and much more besides. Some of the audience was incriminated further, so if you don’t fancy audience participation, don’t sit on an aisle.
But why not? It’s such good fun. Wilson’s greatest gift is his ability to work with the audience, and this is what keeps the theatrical form and the performance fresh. He is a master of improvisation, able to incorporate any response he gets from the audience. With his great moon face and expressive eyes, in a moment he can show he’s surprised, shocked, offended, appreciative, and flirty. Throughout the evening he moves from communicating only through physical mime, to coaxing the audience in basic Italian, to engaging in naughty English repartee.
Very few shows can engage the youngest fry and still offer plenty to parents and even grandparents, but this one does. With Eighth Street around the corner and some of the coolest bars in the city, it’s an evening that also makes for a great date.
The Great One-Man Commedia Epic . Written, Directed, Choreographed, and Performed by Matthew R. Wilson . Produced by Faction of Fools . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
THE GREAT ONE-MAN COMMEDIA EPIC
Closes Dec 20
Susan Galbraith . DCTheatreScene Wilson packs more wallop in this have-masks-will-travel show than theatres with ten times the stage dressings and budget.
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post refined clowning with an appealingly personable touch.
Yvonne French . DCMetroTheaterArts a fun time in the theater you don’t want to miss!