The first fact is that the night I went to see Faction of Fools’ The Lady Becomes Him, it was raining. Hard. One of those awful DC storms that comes on suddenly, lasts forever, and magically leaves you wet, cold, and somehow sweaty. By the time I arrived at the Gallaudet’s Eastman Studio Theatre for the show, I had waded through a few ankle deep puddles and been splashed at waist height by a passing car. I was not in a pleasant mood.
Second, I write a lot during shows I’m reviewing. It’s probably annoying to the people sitting near me (sorry!) and, in smaller venues, annoying to the performers as well (sorry!). Sometimes I want to remind myself about a specific moment, or give credit to a designer for a detail that really added to the show. But the act of writing itself focuses my attention in a way that I find beneficial to the review later. Start to finish, I’m scribbling away in my little book.
So when I tell you that after about fifteen minutes I set my book down, leaned forward in my seat, and just had a great time, it should mean something.
The Lady Becomes Him is based on a 17th Century Italian commedia dell’arte scenario called Donna Zanni. The plot is really a series of relationships. Orazio (Stephen Hock) loves Celia (Lindsey D. Snyder). Celia loves Orazio. Celia is married to the jealous Dottore (Matthew Pauli). Luzio (James McGowan) loves Isabella (Amelia Hensley). Isabella loves Orazio. Rosetta (Isabella’s servant, played by Rachel Spicknall), has to deal with the competing affections of her two boyfriends: Coviello (Jesse Terrill), who works for Orazio, and Pulicinello (John V. Bellomo), who works for Dottore. This would already be enough for any three romantic comedies, but Coviello adds to the mayhem with a brilliant plan to have the town sorceror make Celia look like Pulcinella and Pulcinella look like Celia. Pasta presto, in one fell swoop his master’s love has a ticket out of the house and his romantic rival will get locked up.
In deference to the nature of commedia dell’arte, I’ll employ a stock phrase here: Hilarity ensues.
Under the guidance of Director Toby Mulford, Faction does an amazing job of inviting the audience into their world. The set itself (designed by Daniel Flint) draws us in – it’s a simple backdrop with curtained openings on the side and in the center, but the laundry lines hung to the side and above the stage make the whole thing feel like it extends around the audience. It’s an impressive bit of trickery, and makes it that much easier to be a part of the comedic world that’s being built in front of us.
The real magic of Faction of Fools’ performance lies in repetition. The first time someone gets slapped, it’s funny. The second time is funnier. The third time gets a laugh, but you see the pattern they’re building. So you expect the fourth slap, and when it arrives right on schedule you figure you’re going to laugh a little less. Nope. Not the case. Slaps five and six are just as funny, and when slap number seven arrives after just a little bit of extra business, it’s just about the most hilarious thing you’ve ever seen in your life. The whole show works this way, verbally as well as physically. You look forward to Rosetta and Pulcinella fantasizing about yet another meal the same way that you never get tired of Dottore getting tangled in a sheet. It’s easy to see why commedia was so popular across Europe despite the language barriers faced by the performers.
Speaking of languages… This is my first time seeing Faction at Gallaudet, and the company is doing some amazing work. I was going to say “amazing work making their show accessible,” but it’s a lot more than that. The Lady Becomes Him inhabits a world where being able to hear isn’t the default, a world with multiple sites of interpretation and language. On opening night, ASL interpretation of the characters were given by interpreters who were engaging to watch in their own right. Additionally, a caption board above the stage presents the text of the script each night. So far, so standard. But on top of this, Luzio and Isabella are immigrants from “a foreign land,” and signing is their native language. Audience members without knowledge of ASL have to look to the caption board to fully understand the action. Being Isabella’s servant, Rosetta has also learned ASL, and serves as an interpreter for her mistress. But then the meta-workings of the show become part of the drama – when Dottore accidentally offends Rosetta and the interpreters, the caption board goes on strike in solidarity, and he is forced to fumblingly attempt to speak with Isabella. In a comedic world built on misunderstandings and miscommunication, every member of the audience also has to lean on someone else to understand the play. As someone who usually takes his ability to experience theater for granted, it was more than a little thought-provoking.
Across the board, Faction has assembled a terrific cast for the production. It’s hard to play favorites and the whole cast is a delight to watch, but there are a few standouts. As the jealously-guarded Celia, Lindsey D. Snyder at first seems perfectly serviceable as Orazio’s love interest. But when Snyder has a chance to play Pulcinella disguised as Celia, you get to see how talented she really is. Aside from having a great impersonation of another actor in the company, Snyder gets to demonstrate a flair for physical comedy and the ability to switch characters at the drop of a hat. Matthew Pauli’s Dottore also deserves mention. Of all the masked actors in the The Lady Becomes Him, Pauli seems to have gone the farthest in drawing his character out of his mask. In his first appearances in the window of his home, Pauli’s Dottore was so animated – so Muppet-like – that I almost expected to discover that Dottore was a puppet, an Italian ancestor of Cookie Monster from before the family emigrated to Sesame Street.
And then there’s Pulcinella. Oh, Pulcinella! While Jesse Terrill’s Coviello welcomes the audience to the Naples of The Lady Becomes Him, it quickly becomes Pulcinella’s world. And while at first he simply seems to be Coviello’s rival, Pulcinella quickly becomes a protagonist in his own right. John V. Bellomo is charismatic and passionate, and hardly seems to be playing a part. You get hungry listening to his descriptions of tomato sauce, and it doesn’t seem out of place that Pulcinella uses the language of food as the language of love. But it’s Bellomo’s ability to engage with the audience that really shines through. On opening night, two theatergoers arrived late while Pulcinella held the stage. Without dropping character, Bellomo gave them a chance to find seats and then good-naturedly and earnestly caught them up on the action. It may have been embarrassing for the latecomers, but it was never mean-spirited. Pulcinella just wants his food and his Rosetta, and he’d be happy to share the food with you – as long as there’s still twice as much for him.
But, Poor Coviello! Poverino! He really gets left out in the cold. He’s our first point of connection to the world of the play and the first object of audience sympathy, and he doesn’t really get an ending. The grand finale literally brings down the house but we never find out how Coviello feels about the whole thing. I hope that Faction of Fools will give Coviello the resolution he deserves.
But che sarà. When the show was over, I didn’t want to leave the little world that Faction had built. And not because it was still raining.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Lady Becomes Him plays through May 12, 2013 at Faction of Fools at Gallaudet University’s Eastman Studio Theatre (Elstad Annex) – 800 Florida Ave NE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online or at the box office.