The endearingly minimalist Our Town by Thornton Wilder gets a Commedia dell’Arte treatment from Faction of Fools. Does a Commedia troupe have anything special to bring to the Pulitzer Prize winning play? Indeed they do.
There are few props – a rope, two tables, a bucket and ladders. In this Grover’s Corners, everything is physicalized by the actors–trees and flowers, the town’s skyline, a picket fence, even longitude and latitude. Performers, as they slip out of a scene, create live sounds, foley style, from both sides of the stage. In this way, we hear as well as see dinner tables being set, rubbers being slipped over shoes, creaky steps, slamming doors, an oncoming storm, all thanks to actors perfectly taking their cues from those playing the scene. And one small but spectacularly original invention – two women pantomime stringing beans for canning, their fingers repetitively snapping to make the sounds of beans being broken in two.
Matthew Pauli is particularly effective as Narrator/Stage Manager with his sonorous voice and loving command of the players and the audience. The Stage Manager knows every inch of the Corners and describes even the smallest detail with interest and care.
The ageless story is so basic, the premise of simple, small town life might sound banal today. And then its power sneaks up on you, bam!
The first Act sets up the Corners’ cast of characters, their everyday routines, family dynamics, school rituals, choir practice, and the proximity of the “boy next door” situation between George Gibbs and Emily Webb. In large thriving cities, couple’s families might have to ask “Who are your people?” –but not in this town where everybody knows not only your name, but your family of origin, your likes, your tastes, strengths, and weakness. Eventually morning becomes evening. A choir practices the hymn “Blessed Be the Ties That Bind.” The town’s Constable strolls the street. George and Emily are upstairs in their bedrooms, looking out on the starry night and at each other. Wilson has a fun time building on the two ladders traditionally used here in a way I won’t reveal, except that it gets an extra laugh when one character is left dangling on her ladder until rescued at intermission.
The most touching scene occurs in the second Act, several years later, when sweet and innocent signs of love between George and Emily are followed by wedding day jitters and finally their wedding. Thornton Wilder’s script brings a universal quality to the scenes, and director Matthew R. Wilson has everything unfold with natural grace. It’s truly amazing how the characters, their faces covered in half-masks, communicate through body language and mannerisms. Teresa Spencer, as Emily, is particularly effective in growing from the gangly pre-teen, to the self-conscious high schooler, to the nervously courted girlfriend, to an even more nervous bride. Spencer does more emotional duty in the crucial third act with a lovely performance coupled with that of Drew Kopas as George who expresses unimaginable grief without uttering a sound.
The actors’ movements and voices come across as easy and natural but all are steeped in their art. We watch their physical and playful warm-up routines before the first two Acts to see the discipline it takes to make the work look like play. The artistic designers are also on cue, especially Michael Barnett’s lighting that changes from a comforting glow to brights that snap on at the Stage Manager’s hand clap.
I shamefully admit doing my share of moaning and groaning about why in heaven’s name we need a full second intermission in these micro scene days, but when it finally came, I accepted the need to clear the playing field for the final chapter. Attention simply must be paid to the emotional space needed between the giddy love and marriage and the somber realities of the third Act.
May 28 – June 21
Faction of Fools at
800 Florida Avenue, NE
2 hours, 15 minutes with 2 intermissions
Tickets or call 800-838-3006
Wilson’s direction significantly shifts in style, and tone; gone are the fun-loving, energetic warm ups as at the top of the first two Acts. Instead, the third Act has a quiet, somber tone, different from sad, although tears are an inevitable by-product of the words Wilder wrote in 1938. As much as I enjoyed Ford’s Theatre’s rendering of the play two years ago – especially the spectacular image of chairs hung in space three stories high depicting the cemetery’s hillside – it was surpassed by this intimate view of the town’s deceased, sitting or kneeling on the cemetery ground, close to each other, and further and further removed from the world they left behind. If there was ever a question of the suitability of the Commedia style to this play, Wilson answers it here: with one simple staging effect, which I’ll not spoil for you, he adds a profound statement about who we are in life and in death.
I looked forward to this production for months wondering what a Commedia dell’Arte troupe would do with the treasured messages of Our Town. Faction of Fools grabbed hold of Wilder’s story, enhanced it with their brand of comedy and fun, and led us gently to confronting the inevitability of death. It is a powerful rendition that simply works. Ties that Bind, for real.
Our Town by Thornton Wilder . Directed by Matthew R. Wilson . Featuring Matthew Pauli, Drew Kopas, Teresa Spencer, Julie Garner, Toby Mulford, Paul Reisman, Rachel Spicknall Mulford, John Cartwright II, Natalie Cutcher, Joe Grasso, Darren Marquardt, and Kathryn Zoerb. Costume design: Denise Umland . Lighting design: Michael Barnett . Sound and Music Composition: Roc Lee . Masks: Sarah Conte . Produced by Faction of Fools . Reviewed by Debbie Jackson.