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Faction of Fools opened Love Like Tuesday on Feb. 16, fittingly in that time between Valentine’s Day, the romantic holiday commemorating an early Christian martyr, and Commedia dell’arte Day, commemorating the February 25, 1545, incorporation of Ser Maphio‘s troupe in Padua, marking them as the first registered professional acting company in history. Modern Western theater starts with commedia.
The original commedia troupes were known for their masked clowns, slapstick comedy, improvisation, and characters who would develop into comic archetypes motivated by insatiable appetites for food, drink, love, status, and money. But commedia is not a static art form: Artists have drawn inspiration from it and reinvented it, introducing new characters, incorporating every new theater innovation, adapting it to new media, and sometimes even dropping elements. Because of this malleability, commedia has persisted for nearly five centuries and remains recognizable to those who know what to look for. What has stayed consistent with Faction of Fool’s spin on the form, with Francesca Chilcote and Kathryn Zoerb taking over as co-artistic directors right before the COVID shutdown, is their dedication to mask work and physical comedy.
Playwright Doug Robinson met with the ensemble in January 2022 to improvise scenes on the theme of love. From that workshop, Robinson crafted the Love Like Tuesday script. The Fools presented a staged reading last July, sans physicality and masks. I noticed no major changes in the script since that reading, but the Fools’ broadly physical comedy is what brings it to life.
Chilcote directs this production, set in Pangolin High School. It’s the academia of romantic comedy: friendly kids, supportive staff, and no shortage of teenagers in love or longing. Young love forms the background of the story, but the protagonist is lunch lady Doreen Dawkins (Mary Myers), an alum of Pangolin. A dedicated leader of the lunch line, Doreen gets up early to prepare the sloppy joe meat at home because, in a nod to real-life social issues, the underfunded public school system has yet to replace the cafeteria’s broken oven. She always has a spare sandwich for the odd student. The only other nod to social satire is Matthew Pauli’s Principal Foggybottom, who is squeamish when teacher Ms. Fredricks (Zoerb, who also serves as movement coach) wants to sponsor an after-school event on safe sex.
Doreen’s world is rocked when she discovers that her high school crush, Cameron Noodle (Danny Cackley), is back in town and has been hired as a substitute for the English teacher who has recently gone AWOL. Both still carry torches for one another, but between Doreen’s adult responsibilities, including visiting her mother, Annette (Zoerb, again), in assisted living, and the mystery of what Cameron has been up to since graduation, they never overcome their fears of commitment. As the play’s title suggests, true romantic love between adults is something reliable and not just feeling head-over-heels and these two can’t find it in themselves to trust one another.
The cast of eight, thanks to masks by Tara Cariaso of Waxing Moon Masks, play many more characters, allowing Pangolin to feel even more crowded than it is. One of Chilcote’s cleverest directorial touches comes during transitions, where actors Zoerb, Jordan Essex, and Jasmine Proctor unmask on stage from their high school roles, and transform into the elderly residents of the assisted living home, taking on new masks, changing costumes, and adopting new postures and gaits.
Those familiar with Myers’ previous acting work (notably her performance in Pointless Theatre’s 2022 production of Eugène Ionesco‘s Rhinocéros) will not be surprised by the dynamic rhythm she brings to every scene. Whether in movement or line delivery, she physically manifests every emotion Doreen is feeling—the only surprise is that Myers has never performed with the Fools before. Infatuation causes Doreen to rise up onto relevé as if she’s about to float away, while her limbs undulate as her anxiety causes her to melt.
Matthew Pauli plays a trio of eccentric roles, from the officious yet reluctantly reasonable authority figure Principal Foggybottom, the custodian Silver, who appears to have been previously employed on a 19th-century whaling vessel, and the unnamed editor of the school newspaper. While Andrew Quilpa plays a number of roles including Tromboni, a member of the Pangolin marching band who communicates in hornlike sounds, and Orson, a worker at the assisted living home.
Pangolin High is wonderfully rendered by scenic designer Johnny Weissgerber with a false perspective corridor lined by banks of lockers. These lockers open to serve coffee to teachers, or provide hiding places for Jill (Bri Houtman), an ever-anxious student. Sometimes the bank of lockers opens up as a classroom door. With light design wizardry by William K. D’Eugenio the set transforms into the grounds for the school’s spring carnival.
At nearly 140 minutes, Love Like Tuesday runs quite long for a romantic comedy, but Robinson’s script is always funny and even the most peripheral subplots are entertaining. (I wonder if perhaps he was so inspired by collaborating with Faction of Fools that he crammed in every idea or if somewhere there is—whether in his gray matter, in a drawer, or the cloud—a four-to-six-hour version of the play.) Given the Fools’ own post-pandemic experiments with streaming video, some sort of low-budget episodic version of that story with the Faction’s aesthetics could easily be a cult hit on the right platform.
Faction of Fools presents Doug Robinson’s Love Like Tuesday, directed by Francesca Chilcote, through March 11 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. factionoffools.org. $15–$35.