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The Great One-Man Commedia Epic

Three Out of Four Will Get You 12 or More

By Matthew R. Wilson
Faction of Fools Theatre Company, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington, D.C.
Friday, December 5, 2014, middle of box theater
Directed and Choreographed by Matthew R. Wilson

Wilson in brown mask with long sharp nose and tuffs of brown hair as a mustache and erupting from the top of the mask, his mouth open, his blue eyes staring through the eye slites, black cap tied around his neck, his white smock with frilly cuffs, and holding to his side the wood clapper in his hand.
Matthew R. Wilson plays Truffaldino in The Great One-Man Commedia Epic at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington, D.C. Truffaldino is one of 12 characters Wilson plays in the Faction of Fools Theatre Company production. Below, Wilson with his Scapino mask. Photos by ClintonBPhotography, Faction of Fools.

Here is a title with chutzpa, one that demands veracity in the performance: The Great One-Man Commedia Epic. "Epic?"—an epic one-man show. Oh-kaay. "Great?" That's for us to decide, not an entitlement of the play.

The "one-man" part seems to be accurate in that Matthew R. Wilson not only is the show's writer, director, and choreographer, he also is the lone actor on the bill, and he certainly does "commedia" in this show. Wilson, founder of the Washington, D.C.–based Faction of Fools, a theater company specializing in commedia dell'arte, has trained in this specific performance style and even taught it in, among many other places, Italy, where that particular performance style originated.

His 80-minute show at the Capitol Hills Arts Workshop is something of a primer in the form as Wilson transitions from character to character, wearing traditional commedia masks designed and built by Antonio Fava for each character (except three, which will be explained in due course). All told, Wilson plays 12 characters, and in these guises he acts out a story with a bona fide plot—sort of (which will be explained in due course). That in itself could qualify as "epic," but the story also takes us to many locales and settings thanks to some incredible sound and special effects, which will be explained in due course (but it should be noted here that the lighting effects were something lacking because the light board operator was more interested in filing her nails than in the show; and, yes, that will be explained in due course, too).

So let's get on with the due course with a bit of historical, Shakespeare-relevant background (Wilson's show in fact has a Shakespearean element: a tiny one, but it's there, and it gets a laugh—or a groan, which in commedia earns the show a point to a laugh's two-point play; applause would be worth three points, but I digress). Commedia dell'arte evolved in Renaissance Italy with traveling ensembles of street actors, each member specializing in a stock character. The performers, relying mostly on improvisation, riff off of various standard storylines, and with masks representing the characters. the comic action is broad, knockabout physical humor and stupid jokes but with underlying seriousness or satire. Part of its fun and its theatrical danger is that the audience usually becomes part of the psychological and physical play space. Commedia dell'arte spread across the European continent and reached Elizabethan England in 1560, and scholars believe Shakespeare was influenced by commedia in his early plays. In a sort of reverse study, Faction of Fools has produced commedia versions of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Titus Andronicus, and it definitely added revealing dimensions to Romeo and Titus. Wilson directed all three of those productions and played Hamlichino; he also played Holofernes in Taffety Punk's Bootleg Shakespeare production of Love's Labour's Lost.

Which is to lay the groundwork for my assertion that, along with his commedia expertise, Wilson is a fine actor, and he displays this even before he appears. We hear something crash backstage and, after a pause, a simple "ouch!" Laughter, two points. Soon he comes stumbling on stage. Dressed in a simple, all-white clown costume—baggy pants, long oversized smock coat with giant white buttons, and a black skull cap (costume by Jessica Wegener)—Wilson slowly takes in his surroundings. He finds a light switch and turns on the house lights to discover the audience. "Whoa." This first few minutes, the script comprises such understated exclamations but is mostly delivered in his expressive face and movements as he clambers through the studio theater audience—lifting leg high and over one man's head, perching on arm rests—to retrieve a purse hanging on one wall, a clapper, and a pole to one side.

Only then does he notice the table covered in a brown fabric at the back of the stage. It looks like a corpse might be under that sheet—in fact, I expected it to be Wilson when we first entered the theater. In a way, it turns out to be nine corpses, for when Wilson pulls back the sheet he reveals nine commedia masks. He picks up the one in the center with a particularly long nose, puts it to his face and suddenly Truffaldino has come to life, spouting bombastically from Wilson's mouth. Wilson quickly removes the mask with a frightened, "what the hell just happened?" look. His expression slowly transforms to dawning understanding with a sly grin, and he gingerly puts the mask back on. The Commedia Epic begins, but with just expressions and cleverly connecting with the audience over the first few minutes of his show, Wilson already has scored into double digits, with nary a groan in the statistical tally (but with a commedia play—an epic one, no less—the groans are bound to come).

Donning mask after mask, Wilson presents various stock commedia characters (the original troupes had specialists; he's a multitasker): Truffaldino, the dim-witted servant; Scapino, the wily servant, with fang-like teeth on his mask; Coviello, the entrepreneurial servant, here playing a tavern owner; Dottore Graziano, the verbose know-it-all old man; Pantalone, the wealthy old man easily fooled or cuckolded; La Signora, Pantalone's sassy young wife, Signora Rosaura, who easily cuckolds him; and the three Il Capitanos, who do the cuckolding. The three characters who don't wear masks are Pedrolino, a fussy manservant to Signora Rosaura (usually done in white face makeup, but Wilson is so naturally pale he passes for the floured look), and the two young lovers, Flavio and Isabella. Wilson represents these by props and postures.

The story, in a nutshell, is that Flavio, son of Dottore, is betrothed to Isabella. The wedding is to take place at the house of her father, Pantalone, and all preparations are being made for the big wedding. However, Dottore has discovered in the marriage contract—after a protracted explanation of what exactly is meant by the word contract—a clause having to do with a cousin nobody likes. He calls off the marriage and severs the lovers. Scapino is hired by both fathers, one to guard the contract, the other to steal it (and he does both in one scene using bizarre logic). Signora Rosaura entertains the three Il Capitanos. The distraught lovers separately travel the world, Isabella in disguise, until they come upon each other in a tavern and, in a case of mistaken identity, she kills him in a sword fight. Isabella discovers her error as Flavio expires. "Why do you make us love your goodly gifts, and snatch them straight away?" she tearfully asks, then says in a proud aside, "I stole that from Shakespeare" (and she should be proud—that's from Pericles). But Flavio's not really dead, and everything ends up…

Just like that. It's meanderingly unclear. Wilson does his curtain call, and as we tally up all the laughs, groans, and moments of applause over the previous 80 minutes, we at least score this show as pretty darn good and clap accordingly. Amplify that score by a factor of 12 and, well, you do the math (I'm a writer; numbers are not my forte).

Integral to commedia dell'arte is self-awareness of its own theatricality. In the course of his characterizations, Wilson knowingly shrugs off the ridiculousness of the sheet of paper with "Contract" written at the top and a half dozen squiggly lines representing the "fine print," and he acknowledges the silliness of using an apron to represent a rather skinny woman, let alone the realities of dueling with himself. He also gets into a tiff with his stage manager, Tarythe Albrecht, indifferently missing her cues at the light board, prompting Wilson to visit her perch behind the audience twice in the show. An intentional part of the show? Well. here's a little clue for you all: In Faction of Fools' production of The Lady Becomes Him, the closed-caption board became its own character during the play. I suspect that stage managers and closed-caption boards in Faction of Fools shows could earn Actors' Equity points.

The audience, in addition to its space being an extension of the stage, also becomes an active performer. As Truffaldino introduces himself, a fly intrudes on his monologue. Wilson himself provides the "Zzzzzzzzz" of the fly's flight as he chases it from side to side of the stage and then follows it out into the audience where it lands on one poor patron's nose. During this segment, Wilson coaches us to take over the buzzing sound, and henceforth we are providing all of the play's sound effects, from the snoring fathers in the house and a blustery, stormy night outside the tavern to a flock of birds (comprising, in our audience, songbirds, owls, chickens, and pterodactyls) and wild animals copulating in the jungle.

Wilson, smiling at the camera, has his hands reaching for the mask lying atop his head, a brown mask with pug nose, two fangs, and a tuft of white mustash poking out from above the lip.The Great One-Man Commedia Epic certainly achieves greatness in a couple of moments that exemplify how commedia dell'arte is much more than clowning around. It requires a gifted and brave performer to pull it off as effectively as Wilson does. Three times Wilson drags "volunteers" to the stage to help out with his skits, one of which has Seniora Rosaura preparing herself in the mirror, with the "volunteer" from the audience playing the mirror. This particular mirror played his part tremendously, humorously mimicking Wilson in every move and expression. When you call on audience participation, you risk everything, including being upstaged, but Wilson was more than willing to do that to increase the laugh quotient (that sequence's score included two three-pointers).

Out of nowhere—OK, everything in the story pretty much comes out of nowhere, but this segment is way out of nowhere—come, one by one, the three Il Capitanos: Captain Major Brigadier General Montgomery John Wells Smith, El Capitán del Corazón Solitario, and Capitaine Jean Grammelot. Wilson does more than wear three different masks and use three different accents: these are three completely different people in the words they use, the way they express their inner character and outer cockiness (two different things) in voice, posture, and gesture, and in the stories they tell. Captain Major Brigadier General Montgomery John Wells Smith (I'll try to make this my last reference to him) goes on and on with a story about pursuing the enemy in jungle mountains, an account that includes crossing a ravine on a tightrope, falling, landing in the river, flowing downstream, and—my goodness it just gets crazier and crazier. It's like the Chattanooga Choo Choo joke that goes on absurdly long to a stupid ending, but this one never reaches its punch line. Wilson knows exactly when to have each Il Capitano arrive at Rosaura's rendezvous point just before we cross the line from not getting enough to enough already!

The entire time he's recounting his adventures, Captain, um, et al. is acting it out. As he plays the three captains, the pole in Wilson's hands serves as a sword, machete, shotgun, machine gun, boat oar, telescope, tightrope balance, baton, walking stick, and a pole in his hand. Meanwhile, we, even unprompted, provide the sound effects.

Ah-HAH! The title is a fib. It is not a "one-man" show. But I grant that the other words in the title are totally accurate.

Eric Minton
December 9, 2014

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