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The great rock ‘n’ roll philosophers of Spinal Tap once said there’s a fine line between stupid and clever. That might seem like nonsense to anyone with, well, a firm grasp of the concept of opposites. But after seeing Faction of Fools’ production of The Lady Becomes Him, one might come around to David St. Hubbins’ unconventional wisdom.
Faction is a company devoted to preserving and evolving commedia dell’arte, merging the tropes and stock characters of that old Italian tradition with more modern sensibilities. The core of The Lady Becomes Him is a 17th century scenario called “Donna Zanni”—the broad sketches of a romantic comedy of errors involving adultery, mistaken identities, unrequited love, and magic rings. Oh, and a love pentagon between the play’s upstairs nobility, plus an entirely separate love triangle among the downstairs help.
Given all that geometry, a diagram would be helpful to describe the plot, which involves Celia (Lindsey D. Snyder), who is married to the nobleman Il Dottore (Matthew Pauli) and having an affair with the gallant Orazio (Stephen Hock), who is loved from afar by the rich foreigner Isabella (Amelia Hensley), who is being pursued by Luzio (James McGowan). Meanwhile, Isabella’s servant Rosetta (Rachel Spicknall Mulford) is shacking up with both Dottore and Orazio’s servants. And matters become confused even further by a sorcerer-aided body swap subplot that juggles both class and gender.
Commedia is big on slapstick, wordplay, and general clowning around, and in Faction of Fools’ hands, the style can feel like a cross between Mel Brooks and the Three Stooges. The key for the physical half of that equation, as with the Stooges, is for the carefully choreographed to appear chaotic. The less visual comedy is where that fine line between clever and stupid comes in—just think of the difference between similar but worlds-apart works like Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
The show is most clever when it’s riding a wave of anything-goes unpredictability. A cast of 17th century characters breaking into a ukelele-accompanied musical number of Tin Pan Alley pop makes no sense, but it doesn’t have to—it comes from beyond the left-field fence to become the highlight of the show. Similarly, as Dottore delivers an overlong monologue at the play’s end reminiscent of Leslie Nielson’s rambling final words in Airplane!, mayhem overtakes the stage, the fourth wall comes down figuratively, and real walls come down literally in a fashion that would do Buster Keaton proud.
The company is known for incorporating hearing-impaired characters into it shows, and here they inventively make the open-captioning super titles board—which makes both the spoken and signed portions of the show accessible to all—into a full-fledged and often cheeky member of the cast.
Too often, however, the gags skew toward the hopelessly corny, resulting in more eye- than aisle-rolling. There’s a Borscht Belt sensibility at work that played well to some of the kids in the audience (along with a stale Harry Potter joke), but which mostly induced groans. Too much of the material lacks the tricky illusion of spontaneity, that loose and unrehearsed feeling that comes from hours of tightly controlled rehearsal. When it seemed effortless, the show was clever and funny; when the performers were reaching, it was across a certain very fine line.