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Think about what a mask brings to the party—its distancing power, its distracting allure, the way it both conceals and reveals. It can disguise the individual and suggest the universal. It can deceive; it can pierce a veil to uncover truth. Masks are core to dramatic traditions both Western and Eastern, older than the Egyptians and as current as mummers or a Mardi Gras parade, but they are most familiar onstage today from a gargantuan global hit involving a singing fart-machine named Pumbaa.
The mask is the most basic of theatrical devices, in other words, and paradoxically the one most actors are least equipped to use. That’s why you, reader, are among the luckiest of the lucky. Right now, two distinct plays provide two unusually distinctive showcases for what first-class theatermakers can do with masks.
And they’re not just using the traditional masking techniques taught in classical acting courses, though those, in the hands of the commedia d’ellarte specialists at Faction of Fools, prove key to the success of their modestly staged but unquestionably moving Our Town. In the bold and bracing Tartuffe at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall, director Dominique Serrand deploys what looks like a million bucks’ worth of high-end design (that blue dress alone!) to support an intensely artificial performance style that, in effect, uses an actor’s entire body as a mask—now echoing and amplifying what she’s saying in dialogue, now rebelling against the claim her words are making. It’s different and difficult and downright weird, and I can’t stop thinking about some of the freaky stage pictures Serrand and his astonishing ensemble are creating.
A few dots to connect: Our Town is an American classic—perhaps the American classic—by Thornton Wilder, a writer unjustly lodged in most minds as a Norman Rockwell-style sentimentalist. He’s actually a kind of hopeful existentialist, a big-hearted humanist and before-his-time theatrical experimentalist (see also The Skin of Our Teeth) who just happened to write a giant hit that gets done badly somewhere every season. Tartuffe, formally a comedy but really a cautionary tale about the collision of power and piety, is one of the crowning achievements of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière. Gaul’s answer to both Shakespeare and Borat, Molière is a writer of formal precision and French excess, a man whose blacker-than-black comedies, done with the right mixture of ferocity and absurdity, have a chill that’ll leave your teeth chattering.
Our Town director and Faction founder Matthew Wilson, to turn to present-day personalities, is a D.C.-based actor, fight choreographer, and commedia historian. Serrand, the Tartuffe director whose Theatre de la Jeune Lune was a modernist mainstay of Minneapolis’ rich theater scene for decades, is a Paris-born avant-gardist trained in the rigorous movement-theater tradition of Jacques Lecoq, whose own interest in the body communicative arose from both the gymnasium and the Italian commedia traditions that inspired the groundbreaking theater of… that’s right, Molière. (And Shakespeare, too, but that’s another story.)
See where this is going? Two deceptively simple stories, one a gentle New England fable, the other a fierce and bitter French farce, offer two indelible takes on the human condition, one warm and hopeful, one jaded and despairing, in two performance styles that couldn’t be more unalike—two styles that nonetheless have an abundance in common, that were revolutionary in their day, that have roots in exactly the same place. Man, I love the theater; age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.
I’m not doing plot summaries; that’s why you have a smartphone. I want you to wonder instead about the strength and breath control it must require for Tartuffe (the near-feral Steven Epp, Serrand’s longtime collaborator, here channeling Devil’s Advocate-era Al Pacino) to deliver a speech from the floor, mid-crunch, legs and arms and head and shoulders and all held insinuatingly mid-air, only his hindquarters touching the stage. He delivers that speech, let’s note, in a voice that can be heard across 800 seats. Take that to your Pilates instructor and set it as a new goal, and when you’re done there let’s talk about the wild slow-motion things Sofia Jean Gomez is doing inside Elmire’s 14-acre ballgown.
Consider, too, the role of the Fool, and what it takes to make a stock comedy figure feel red-blooded and human. In Our Town, Faction’s Darren Marquardt mines the tale of town drunk Simon Stimson both for the laughs that are always there and the tragedy that too often goes begging. The choirmaster—a bachelor and the eternal odd man out—is not made for small-town life, as the Stage Manager so memorably puts it. He couldn’t be a more clearly coded Everyqueer, at least to me, but then to you he might simply be a misanthrope with a musical bent, and that’s the beauty of Wilder’s timeless archetypes. Marquardt waggles his bottom and waves his arms and lunges about like a Key West drag queen playing to a house full of competing bachelorette parties, but when the play’s famously grave Act 3 comes around, his place among the resting dead of Grover’s Corners feels as earned as that of any Gibbs or Webb.
In Tartuffe, it’s the saucy maid Dorine (brass-lunged, Patmore-cheeked Suzanne Warmanen) who speaks truth to the various powers, right up until a master’s outrage and her own overreach collide in a moment that speaks wordless volumes about power and privilege and protocol in a society (theirs? ours?) where a servant is both part of the family and practically a possession. One minute Warmanen’s Dorine is a broad comedy type; the next, a woman trembling at the prospect of a brutal beating, and in both moments she’s completely in command of the stage.
Matthew Pauli’s pitch-perfect Stage Manager, who’s a kind of less lanky Jimmy Stewart hand-holding the audience through Wilder’s sweet sadnesses; Lenne Klingaman’s pert, precise Mariane; the elegant, unnerving whiteface malevolence of Tartuffe’s servant Laurent (Nathan Keepers); the eloquent designs and the confident tones and the wildly different but similarly unified sensibilities that hold each of these productions together: There’s so much more to love and dissect and marvel over, so exuberantly much at play in these playful, sober, impossibly rich stories, and so painfully little time and space to spend with them, because this is theater, and like our lives, it evanesces. Do yourself a favor; do what Our Town’s sweet, earnest Emily urges from her new-dug grave, and give them both a good look before their time is past.
800 Florida Ave. NE. $12–$25. factionoffools.org.
610 F St. NW. $20–$110. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.