Commedia Dell’Arte Turns Wilder’s Classic
Into a Theatrical and Personal Epiphany
By Thornton Wilder
Faction of Fools Theatre Company, Gallaudet University’s Elstad Auditorium, Washington, D.C.
Sunday, May 31, 2015, C–108&109 (center stalls)
Directed and Choreographed by Matthew R. Wilson
The Stage Manager (Matthew Pauli) guides us through the Grover's Corners cemetary, played by the masked ensemble, in the Faction of Fools commedia dell'arte production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town at Gallaudet University's Elstad Audtiorium. Photo by C. Stanley Photography, Faction of Fools Theatre Company.
We’ll start in the middle—for it was in the middle when my life began to change. The middle is “Act II: Love and Marriage” of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and we are watching a commedia dell’arte version of this modern American classic, complete with masks, hyper-physical gestures, stock characterizations, and knockabout humor.
High schoolers George and Emily are experiencing the moment when they knew they were going to become lifelong soulmates as they sip on strawberry ice cream sodas. The actors (Drew Kopas as George, Teresa Spencer as Emily) move in cartoonish manners and give simplistically clichéd line readings while a sound effects team makes loud gurgling noises every time they slurp their sodas. Yet, despite these slapstick elements, the moment is not slapstick; it is an affecting, incomprehensibly moving scene as the two actors perfectly capture maybe not real teen-age, dawning-romantic angst but our own recall of such moments of blissful naiveté remembered through the tainted perspective of lived experience.
It is the moment that Faction of Fool’s production of Our Town shifts from being merely entertaining to profoundly engaging, from being a theatrical curiosity to becoming multidimensional art, from demonstrating brilliant stagecraft to being sheer genius.
To get to this moment, let’s briefly go back to the beginning, well before we took our seats in Gallaudet University’s Elstad Auditorium for this production. When Faction of Fools last summer released its 2014–2015 schedule with Wilder’s 1938 masterpiece as the spring offering, we immediately added it to our must-see list. We’re unabashed fans of this small Washington, D.C., commedia dell’arte theater company founded by Matthew R. Wilson, who directs this show. Their Commedia Romeo and Juliet three years ago hooked us, and whether it was more Shakespeare (a bloody delightful Titus Andronicus and a slyly silly Hamlet), original commedia productions (The Lady Becomes Him and Wilson’s primer The Great One-Man Commedia Epic), or a classic adaptation (A Commedia Christmas Carol), we have been both tickled and intellectually intrigued at their productions. We figured a commedia take on Our Town should be a hoot.
We didn't know what was transpiring in Wilson's mind. This production was first workshopped in January 2014 as part of the Arena Stage Kogod Cradle Series, an exercise that proved to be a huge eye-opener for Wilson. The style of Wilder’s script and his presentation of stock American characters lent themselves to the conventions of commedia, but through applying the commedia treatment to the play Wilson discovered the depths of Wilder’s slice of Americana and its existential meditations. “I thought this was a play about a simpler time. Nope,” Wilson writes in his program notes. “It’s a play about how we are all too damn busy—even in 1901 [the time frame of the play’s first act]. It’s a play about how we all get so stuck in the machines of our daily rituals that we don’t have time to stop and look at one another.” By blending commedia with American theatrical traditions and then turning commedia conventions inside out, Wilson creates a conduit that delivers Wilder's thematic point straight to our hearts.
Commedia dell’arte is an acquired taste or, perhaps, a learned taste. The theatrical form dates to early 16th century Italy when traveling troupes of actors would don masks representing stock characters and act out plots while relying heavily on improvisation and audience reaction. However, the over-the-top humor often masked satirical intents, deeper meanings, and sincere emotions, too. Modern audiences can’t always get their arms around commedia because it seems, on the surface, to be so artificially self-conceited. And what’s with those masks? The modern theatrical art form I compare commedia dell’arte to is Chuck Jones cartoons (Looney Tunes, How the Grinch Stole Christmas): same kind of knockabout humor, same kind of stock characters, same kind of direct audience relationship, same kind of silly jokes with double entendres and sly cultural references—and sometimes, the same kind of emotional wallop.
Wilder’s Our Town was revolutionary for its time: the characters mime their tasks, it has no set, the Stage Manager creating the scenery of imagination by describing the town and its environs and people. This alone makes commedia dell'arte fit snugly into the play's aesthete.
Commedia troupes entered a town and created a play. We enter the Elstad to find a bare stage, except for a couple of ladders and, on either side, junk-covered tables. The actors already are on stage warming up in early 20th century work clothes designed by Denise Umland. The actors stretch limbs, fingers, torsos, and vocal chords: We hear moans, yawns, caterwauls, and even a meow. Matthew Pauli walks on, claps his hands, the house lights go down, and the other 11 actors put on their masks and scramble to readiness. Pauli is the Stage Manager, and he alone is not wearing a mask (except when he occasionally takes on the roles of minor characters in the play).
Commedia troupes created their own stages. At the Stage Manager's direction, cast members become Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. The ensemble portrays the mountain and the sun coming up, Main Street and all its stores, a train, various churches, and the flowers and weeds in the gardens.
Commedia actors rely on mime; ditto Wilder's characters, but this cast goes beyond the mothers shelling invisible peas and fixing breakfasts at phantom stoves. There's the purely commedia moment of Doc Gibbs trying to carve a bite out of Mrs. Gibbs' French toast, and there's the lovely pantomime moment of George and Emily taking their romantic stroll, with the couple moving in place while behind them the rest of the cast representing Main Street slides across the stage.
We also get live sound effects, accomplished at those tables on either side of the stage: Members of the cast use objects from those tables to create noises synchronized with the movements of their fellows on stage. As George plays catch with a baseball, the whoosh of a rubber hose accompanies his throwing motion and the thump on an actor’s breast accompanies the catch. Clinking bottles accompany Howie Newsome (Darren Marquardt) handing milk bottles over to Mrs. Gibbs (Julie Garner) and Mrs. Webb (Natalie Cutcher). Other devices create the sounds of doors opening and closing, breakfast cooking, and strapping on galoshes.
Commedia uses stock characters, and Wilder does, too, but they are from completely different traditions, and Wilson wisely doesn't force a fusion where it is not merited. Doc Gibbs (Toby Mulford) as Il Dottore is appropriate, but Mrs. Gibbs is no La Signora, though she invites her husband to "Come out and smell the heliotropes in the moonlight” with a seductive wiggle.
Commedia incorporates direct-audience address, as does Wilder, not only with the Stage Manager but with Professor Willard, who gives a long-winded lecture on the history of Grover’s Corners—a perfect setup for an Il Capitano joke with Deaf actor John Cartwright II in the role (members of the audience are chosen before the play to portray members of Willard’s audience, asking the professor questions in the Q&A session). Wilson maintains other commedia standards, such as running jokes ad nauseam (everybody waves to the back of the stage at every mention of the Polish neighborhood across the railroad track) and the knockabout humor. Editor Webb (Paul Reisman) endures his fair share of abuse as he tries to read his newspaper, and the choir rehearsal at the direction of the drunk Simon Stimson (Marquardt) is incredibly fine-tuned choreography and choral work combined. However, Wilson doesn't push our patience with such running jokes, even as the drunk Stimson keeps showing up, sending the ensemble into yet another impromptu tune. Plus, he never lets the physical humor overshadow Wilder's script—and this production stays true to that script.
Wilder's play, of course, doesn't call for masks whereas commedia dell’arte requires them. The masks are used to represent specific stock characters, and in that sense they come to be the characters themselves. With this in mind, the masks play a significant role in a character's death. Take Joe Crowell, the paperboy played by Rachel Spicknall Mulford, riding his invisible bicycle delivering invisible newspapers (whoosh-thump) around the stage. As the Stage Manager describes how Joe would go on to earn a full scholarship to MIT and graduate at the top of his class, Spicknall Mulford stands next to him, proudly listening. But upon hearing that he will die in France during World War I—so much education gone to waste—Spicknall Mulford removes her mask, stoically nods, and walks off the stage. The moment is not the insignificant digression it might seem in Wilder's script, and the moment certainly reverberates later in Wilson's staging.
Because their facial expressions are covered, the actors must rely on exaggerated body gestures to portray emotions. However, commedia masks by design have an expression of pathos (think of the most well-known commedia stock character, Harlequin, and the sad clown). Sarah Conte designed all the masks for the residents of this Grover's Corners, including those of the young lovers, George and Emily; in commedia tradition, the young lovers don’t wear masks, but that they do so here becomes a subtle but key point in this production.
George Gibbs (Drew Kopas) and Emily Webb (Teresa Spencer) at the tentative and awkward start of their romance in the Faction of Fools' production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. In commedia dell'arte tradition, young lovers don't wear masks; that George and Emily do in this production holds significance in the play's final act. Photo by C. Stanley Photography, Faction of Fools.
Because we know the third act of Our Town, by the time we are nearing the end of Act II, with commedia conventions still in full swing even as George and Emily somehow are emerging as heartachingly real characters, our anticipation of what's to come is heightening. We don't realize how Wilson is setting us up for his staging of Act III, “Death and Dying,” set in the mountainside cemetery in 1913.
It starts with typically commedia moments when the cast plays the various parts of the graveyard, including the old monuments of early settlers and the row of Civil War casualties. But then we come to the section containing the graves of people we got to know in the earlier acts: Mrs. Gibbs, Wally Webb (Emily's younger brother played by Cartwright), Simon Stimson, Constable Warren (Joe Grasso), and Mrs. Soames (Spicknall Mulford), the gabby gossip who couldn’t stop telling us how beautiful Emily’s and George’s wedding was. In death, the actors, sitting still on chairs, are not wearing commedia masks but they remain expressionless even when they speak their lines—they are wearing natural masks of death, instead. Each one’s performance here is so markedly different from their commedia representations before: Marquardt is dryly cynical as Stimson, the drunk choir master whom we’ve heard killed himself, while Spicknal Mulford’s Mrs. Soames, an irritant in Act II, is a woman of simple sweetness. Such little details count big.
Expressionless, motionless, Garner’s Mrs. Gibbs channels into her line readings in this scene a woman who seemingly lived a comfortable life but suffered the deep disappointment of never getting to see Paris or anywhere that wasn’t Grover’s Corners because her husband was too busy in his job or too focused on his own hobby of studying Civil War battlefields. The farthest from her hometown she got was seeing her daughter, Rebecca (Kathryn Zoerb) in Ohio, the trip on which Mrs. Gibbs died. In such a tone does she (and Mrs. Soames and Stimson, too) warn newly dead Emily from accepting the opportunity to relive her 12th birthday. Emily doesn’t heed their warnings, nor does she comprehend the Stage Manager’s point that she not only will relive the day, she will get to watch it as the person she is now.
Her 12th birthday marks a return to the world of commedia, but having established a more somber mood for Act III, commedia feels out of place. However, the varying theatrical worlds—commedia's hyper-physicality, the ever-present sound effects, the unmasked Emily imploring everybody to really look at her—are on a collision course that, amid the visual and aural cacophony, we don't see coming; we feel it, though, but only after the collision hits us in the sudden silence of Emily's frustration and desire to return to her grave. “They don’t understand, do they?” Emily says of the living, of us. “No, they don’t,” confirms Mrs. Gibbs as onto the stage walks George. Kopas is wearing his commedia mask—his character is still living— but in one final gesture it becomes a true mask of death.
I’ve seen Our Town before and considered it interesting drama with a poignant message. What Wilson has wrought with his talented cast blending commedia dell'arte with Wilder's conceptual staging still reverberates through my sinews three days on—and, I hope, for the rest of my life. I've found myself pausing to appreciate the mere environment of my being, letting bites of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert linger on the tastebuds longer, admiring my wife's beauty more deeply, and letting our kisses last longer, the two kisses upon waking, the three at the Metro station in the morning, the countless kisses in the evening. I do understand—now—how much we should value not merely life but living, turning not just our experiences but our memories of those moments into richer treasures.
Faction of Fools’ version of Wilder’s Our Town is not just transcendent theater; it is an epiphany.
June 3, 2015