Credit: C. Stanley Photography

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Audience members file in through the stage left wing at the Elstad Auditorium, and take their seats on the stage. To their left are the heavy proscenium curtains. Costumes hang on clothing racks. Poles stand upright in a bucket. Masks and slapsticks, the most basic instruments of commedia dell’arte, rest in a wheeled cabinet. Six bickering actors and their American Sign Language interpreter, Lindsey D. Snyder, burst through the doorway, trading lines from the chorus of Henry V. As soon they finish, they’re donning doublets, frocks, masks, and hats.

While Shakespeare and his contemporaries were writing for the London stage, on the continent, Italian comedy was all the rage—consequently, commedia, the highly physical, masked style that Faction of Fools specializes in, provides a fascinating means to recontextualize the Bard’s works.

The commoners, not surprisingly, lend themselves well to the ribald treatment with the early rivalry between Pistol (Ben Lauer) and Nym (Julie Weir) over Pistol’s wife, Mistress Quickly (Casey Johnson-Pasqua) as well as Jesse Terrill’s pedantic Captain Fluellen, and Johnson-Pasqua’s officious French emissary, Montjoy.

Were one to imagine a 15th century in which comedians were free to lampoon the affairs of state before a paying audience, it might look like this. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s (Terrill) reading off the reasoning behind the Church’s backing of Henry’s (Kiernan McGowan) claim of sovereignty over France inspires a striking visual gag as members of Henry’s court are literally tied up in the lengthy legal brief. The stylized walks of commedia’s zannis, or tricksters, satirize the protocols of the courts of both Henry and the decadent French royals and the civilized facade of those sending men and boys into the breach to kill and be killed.

Henry V may have inspired a variety of interpretations over the centuries because Shakespeare has given us something of a cipher, and McGowan’s Hal acknowledges that even as he attempts to conform to a model of monarchical rectitude. This is a king who can in one scene threaten atrocities against the citizens of Harfleur that in our era would result in a war crimes tribunal, while a few scenes later order the hanging of Bardolph (Terrill) for looting.

Whereas productions that focus on the realities of war often make the wooing of Princess Katharine (Weir) seem unexpected, the dark slapstick of this Battle of Agincourt allows this happy ending to come off effectively. Shallow King Hal just wants to woo when war is won; bawdy Queen Isabel (Hannah D. Sweet) is hot to trot now that the victorious Brits are in the palace; and so the princess’ English lessons, taught by her attendant Alice (Johnson-Pasqua, who performs all her roles in ASL, thus making the normally bilingual scene trilingual) seem like a preparation for his eventual arrival. 

Director Paul Reisman’s ability to create an epic scale production with a cast of six playing over 40 roles is particularly impressive. While much of that is the consequence of having actors skilled in the art of masks and physical theater, it is also the result of the inventive ways the actors transition from one character to the next. (There’s a thrill seeing the trick by which Sweet transforms from the Dauphin to the late Falstaff’s page.) At other times there is a sense of intimacy when the actors change costumes and masks in front of the audience to the accompaniment of a kazoo.

The commedia treatment, when applied to one of Shakespeare’s histories, will upset some purists. However this is one of his most popular plays, so there will always be another company ready to stage a more conventional production. The Fools are not replacing convention, but broadening our understanding of it. The only question is if these comedians do so artfully. The answer is yes.

To Nov. 11 at 800 Florida Ave. NE. $12–$22.