Anyone who has ever seen Romeo and Juliet — the Baz Luhrmann version (1996) with Claire Danes and Leonardo Di Caprio (not a fan), the Zeffirelli (1968) version with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey (loved it) — or even read the play in high school, knows that it is a tragedy. One of the greatest, possibly the greatest, of Shakespeare’s tragedies. So how could it ever, possibly, in this world or the next, be funny?
Well, it can, and it is. Faction of Fools’ remount of Founding Artistic Director Matthew R. Wilson’s 2012 production provides laughs, gasps, and the revelation that the line between comedy and tragedy is sometimes a thin one. Some argue that Romeo and Juliet is in some sense a comedy, at least in the first two acts. (I wouldn’t.) Still, there is no doubt that onstage at Fools it is downright hilarious, except for the end of course. But the Fools pull even that off, with breathless ingenuity. (There are two casts, the Capulets and the Montagues — I saw the Montagues). Director Kathryn Zoerb calls this Romeo and Juliet “a wild ride.” It is also, as she notes in her introduction, “earnest, heightened, and spectacular.”
The physical hijinks allow the language to soar. The adaptation, which cuts the running time down to a mere 70 minutes, is extremely skillful. (The script was first adapted by Paul Reisman and Matthew R. Wilson, and further adapted by Matthew Pauli and Kathryn Zoerb.) The comic focus solves one of the biggest problems you sometimes see in production, which is lifelessness: the actors becoming intimidated by the virtuosity of the text, and either slipping into singsong rhythm or attempting to “update” the meaning, with disastrous consequences. Nothing like that happens here.
It’s a delight to see the Prince’s prologue (here split into two parts) featuring the full cast. Jasmine Proctor as the Prince is held up by her fellow actors like a Most Valuable Player. An argument breaks out over how long the show is. The physical comedy is wonderfully extravagant, although I don’t want to give away too much. Suffice it to say that you will never see the balcony scene or Juliet’s death in quite the same way again.
Romeo (Max Johnson) has a boyish charm. His love for Juliet approaches utter adoration. Jasmine Proctor’s Juliet is a captivating creation, and the contemporary flair she brings to it only broadens its appeal.
Deimoni Brewington plays the Nurse and Paris with equal effervescence and flair. His Nurse fusses over Juliet, calls angrily at her from offstage, and sincerely, deeply loves her, as it is easy to see. As Paris, his passion for himself, and his role as a lover, is full of comic invention. Mary Myers as Mercutio captures the wit of the character as well as his desperation. Co-Artistic Director Francesca Chilcote is refreshingly funny as Friar Lawrence, who is sometimes (let’s be honest) a bit of a bore.
Original Composer Jesse Terrill’s music is remarkable, underlying and enhancing the shifts of mood, which are so critical. Remount Scenic Designer Johnny Weissgerber’s imaginative set resembles a traveling actor’s dream: a mural of an Italian piazza. Costumes by original Costume Designer Lynly A. Saunders are adaptable and fit in perfectly with the spirit of the production.
Faction of Fools is the only DC theater company that focuses on Commedia dell’Arte, a 16th-century Italian theatrical form that became popular in England and France as well. It featured stock comic characters such as the Capitano, a boastful soldier, and Dottore, a self-absorbed and greedy merchant. An ensemble of professional actors would perform a scenario, largely improvised, with lazzi, physical and verbal gags. One popular scenario was, as in Romeo and Juliet, two young lovers separated by their parents. Traditionally all are masked, except the Young Lovers.
Here all are masked, except Romeo and Juliet. The evocative masks (by Tara Cariaso), along with the astonishing physical acrobatics, add to the rambunctious madness of it all. Beneath the traditional forms of comedy and tragedy, Faction of Fools reminds us there is a more important value: truth.
Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes with no intermission.
A Commedia Romeo and Juliet plays through February 3, 2024, presented by Faction of Fools Theatre Company performing in the black box theater inside the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop at 545 7th Street SE, Washington, DC. Tickets are on a sliding scale ($25, market rate; $35, “pay it forward”; $15, lower income/child) and can be purchased at the door and online.
Family-friendly, contains some PG-13 content.
COVID Safety: Medical-mask-required performances are on Saturday, January 27, at 2 pm and Saturday, February 3, at 2 pm. Masks will be available at the box office. For all other performances, masks are not required.
A Commedia Romeo and Juliet
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kathryn Zoerb
First adapted by Paul Reisman and Matthew R. Wilson
Further adapted by Matthew Pauli & Kathryn Zoerb
Originally Conceived & Directed by Dr. Matthew R. Wilson
Originally Created by & Starred Gwen Grastorf, Drew Kopas, Toby Mulford, Paul Reisman, and Eva Wilhelm
“THE MONTAGUE CAST”
Nurse/Benvolio: Deimoni Brewington
Friar Lawrence/Tybalt: Francesca Chilcote
Romeo/Montague: Max Johnson
Mercutio/Capulet: Mary Myers
Juliet/Prince: Jasmine Proctor
“THE CAPULET CAST”
Romeo/Montague: Travis Xavier Brown
Friar Laurence/Tybalt: Natalie Cutcher
Juliet/Prince: Bri Houtman
Nurse/Benvolio: Ben Lauer
Mercutio/Capulet: Robert Pike
Director: Kathryn Zoerb
Assistant Director: Matthew Pauli
Stage Manager: Samantha Nordarse Owen
Remount & Original Costume Designer: Lynly A. Saunders
Lighting & Sound Designer: William K. D’Eugenio
Remount Scenic Design: Johnny Weissgerber
Mask Designer: Tara Cariaso of Waxing Moon Masks
Acro-Balance Choreographer: Rachel Spicknall Mulford
Intimacy Choreographer: Megan Behm
Text Coach: Renea S. Brown
Original Production Consultant: Gwen Grastorf
Original Scenic Design: Daniel Flint
Original Fight Choreographer: Dr. Matthew R. Wilson
Original Sound Designer: Thomas Sowers
Original Music Composition: Jesse Terrill
Faction of Fools to remount foolish favorite ‘A Commedia Romeo and Juliet’ (news story January 4, 2024)