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Giggles in Juliet’s garden? Slapstick antics in the Capulet tomb? Yes, and bring them on: Romeo and Juliet has roots that go way beyond Shakespeare’s First Folio. Among the deepest is the one that taps into the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte, with its stock characters and its bawdy vigor and its fondness for mistaken identities and masked merriment. Part of Shakespeare’s genius was in how he exploited those traditions within the frame of his tragedies; the genius that sparks the Romeo and Juliet now on offer from D.C.’s Faction of Fools ensemble is in the way it pinpoints and physicalizes the anarchic energies that undergird the story. Mercutio’s edginess, Tybalt’s arrogance, Paris’ vanity, Romeo’s hormonal impulsiveness, the Nurse’s flightiness all register sharply here as part of the forces that conspire to cross the lovers’ stars.
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It’s Shakespeare on speed—literally, given the ruthless edit and the breathless pace that bring the performance in at about 80 minutes—with more quick-changes and ingenious scene transitions than I could count. The performances are splendidly physical, often acrobatic, and the ensemble members intimately in touch with one another in each instant; this is the sort of thing that can’t be done without tremendous focus, or by a company that isn’t fiercely committed to the tricks of its trade.
Daniel Flint’s diabolical set design involves a hefty traveler’s trunk that explodes in the actors’ hands to become a Rube Goldberg variation on the traditional two planks and a passion: The players combine and recombine its constituent parts to build everything from Juliet’s balcony to Juliet’s bier. Clever costumes, by Lynly Saunders, help the five-member ensemble populate the stage with what seems like half of Verona—and when the Fools run out of live bodies, don’t think they’re above substituting a pillowy dummy for a recently expired Capulet.
A willowy, mischievous Gwen Grastorf and a lithe, puppy-eyed Drew Kopas are Juliet and her Romeo—the heart of the show, but not by any means its whole. The virtue of punching up the comedy in Romeo and Juliet is that it throws the horrors into stark relief; just consider, for instance, the very different reactions to Juliet’s “death” by sleeping potion and her actual expiration over Romeo’s cooling corpse. Those are group scenes, full of clamor and comment, and every fool in this faction makes a substantial contribution there.