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At the Hotel MacGuffin, a once-reputable resort fallen on hard times after a scandalous incident, the officious Concierge (Colin Connor) struts like a tuxedoed flamingo, noting the business is close to bankruptcy. But a mysterious unsigned letter promises a chance to reverse the declining fortunes of the MacGuffin: Guests will be arriving soon, each bearing a similar letter.
The guests include the paranoid plutocrat Bernard Bottomdollar (Kelsey Painter) and his wife, the glamorous celebrity gossip writer Signora Zelda Bottomdollar (Francesca Chilcote), the ravenous attorney Doctor Lionel Lastword (Graham Pilato), and a hotel lobby Lothario (Darius Johnson). Some antics ensue as the guests pop in and out of each other’s rooms, while the staff pursue their own petty rivalries, obsessions, and infatuations. Soon they are all gathered in the drawing room, the electricity goes off, and when the lights return, one of the guests has been murdered!
If one suspects that The Great Commedia Hotel Murder Mystery owes something to Agatha Christie, the sudden arrival of Detective Emile Auguste Paragon (a bombastic Ben Lauer) eliminates all reasonable doubt. A Hercule Poirot pastiche, he is narcissistic, dapper, and persnickety about how many napkins come with his afternoon tea service. Most importantly, he cultivates a ridiculous moustache. Without leaving the drawing room, Paragon pursues his investigation, and each suspect’s alibi replays scenes of the earlier sex farce as seen from the other side of a hotel suite’s closed door, only to have Paragon interrogate himself as a suspect.
Faction of Fools has repeatedly demonstrated the vitality of the centuries-old commedia dell’arte idiom; stagings of works by Chekhov and Shakespeare have given audiences new ways of looking at and thinking about classic plays. The plot of this show is lighter and closely follows the basic formula of a Poirot mystery, sending up what one expects to be sent up, but Paul Reisman has been directing this troupe for long enough that he knows to write to his actors’ individual strengths, and the ensemble’s rapid delivery of verbal, physical, and, given the Faction’s commitment to the integration of American Sign Language (and longstanding residency at Gallaudet University), digital comedy.
This being commedia, much of the stage time is devoted to the hotel staff’s antics––even if their business is largely peripheral to the crime drama, it’s what commedia aficionados come for. Leading the zanies is Kathryn Zoerb, the company commedia coach, as the frenetic bellhop of the MacGuffin, whether acting as the Concierge’s hyperactive foil, chasing after flies with a battachio (the traditional slapstick) crab-walking the guests’ luggage to their rooms, lusting after the French maid, Babette (Tori Boutin), or being pursued by the knife-wielding cook (Chukwudi Kalu) whose kitchen the bellhop repeatedly wrecks.
Chilcote’s Signora exudes a sultry sense of entitlement, while Johnson’s dubious Gentleman carries himself with an over-the-top swagger. His dance skills enhance a pas de deux sequence (first with Chilcote, then with Connor) involving a dropped handkerchief, but he becomes increasingly aware that he’s nowhere as sophisticated as the Signora he hopes to seduce.
Bridgid K. Burge’s scenic design for the hotel is particularly effective for the sudden scene shifts and flashbacks. Costume designer Kitt Crescenzo has assembled a gorgeous wardrobe for Zelda and eye-popping uniforms for the MacGuffin’s staff. Mask designers Aaron Cromie and Tara Cariaso provide a sly commentary on the influence of commedia’s archetypal characters: The gentleman seducer and the detective both wear variants of the Capitano mask, signifying the similar tension of flamboyance and insecurity.
In sending up the mystery genre, Reisman, serving as both writer and director, draws our attention to what commedia (especially the comedies of Carlo Goldoni) and the detective stories of Agatha Christie have in common: the fine-tuned clockwork plot structure in which every seeming ornamentation has a narrative function. But most importantly the Faction reminds us that, unlike magicians who revel in secrets and spectacles, the performance of both a comedian and fictitious detective is not done until they reveal the means by which either the crime or the gag is accomplished.
To May 19 at 800 Florida Ave. NE. $12–$22. factionoffools.org.