‘Hamlecchino’ at Faction of Fools by Natalie McCabe

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Something may be rotten in the state of Denmark, but energy is high and comedy very much alive in Faction of Fools’ current production, Hamlecchino, which takes Shakespeare’s Hamlet and reinvents it as a Commedia dell’Arte play. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet has been summoned from his studies due to his father’s untimely death. When he returns to his country, he finds his mother Gertrude married to his father’s brother, Claudius, who has usurped the throne. His father appears as a Ghost, seen only by Hamlet, ever-loyal Horatio, and some soldiers to instruct Hamlet to revenge his death, caused by poison administered by Claudius.

Matthew R. Wilson (Hamlecchino). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In Faction of Fools’ version, each character has taken on a traditional stock character from Commedia dell’Arte, a masked art form full of slapstick comedy and ultra-physicality.  Here, in Factions’ creative adaptation, Hamlet, played by the company’s athletic director and choreographer Matthew R. Wilson, is Arlecchino, a “rogue and peasant slave.” Arlecchino is not the stock character one would traditionally assign to Hamlet, but Faction and Wilson justify their decision. In this rendition, Hamlet is “miscast,” struggling to perform the duties traditionally assigned to the hero of a revenge tragedy, and therein lies the rub. This Hamlet/Arlecchino (hence “Hamlecchino”) literally finds his world turned upside down- standing on his head, rolling about, feet on the ground- as he struggles to revenge his father, who appears as a Ghost – and Commedia character Pulcinella – who prompts his son to revenge his untimely death. David Gaines’ Ghost alternates between a spookily melodramatic and a fantastically obnoxious but honest portrayal, his dark mask and white costume led by a long beak-like nose illustrating Pulcinella and reminding the audience of the struggle between life and death.

Other Commedia dell’Arte stock characters are woven into the storyline. Ophelia (Emma Crane Jaster) and brother Laertes (a dedicated John V. Bellomo) are the Commedia lovers – not actual lovers but, rather, in love with each other as family. Ophelia’s fate is intertwined with Hamlet’s, which proves to be her downfall.  Claudius, as the oft-opportunistic and greedy Capitano, played by a crafty Billy Finn, enjoys the fruits of his conquest in the form of his new wife and former sister-in-law, Eva Wilhelm’s frisky Gertrude, played here a Donna Zezza (ironically, considered a “female Pulcinella”). Rachel Spicknall’s devoted Horatio is in league with Hamlet’s Arlecchino to the very end.

Left to Right: Emma Crane Jaster (Ophelia), Toby Mulford (Polonius) and John V. Bellomo (Laertes). Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Ophelia’s inevitable madness is exquisitely portrayed in this production, as actress Emma Crane Jaster, true to her last name, performs elegant acrobatics, including a beautifully tragic silks routine that literally turns on the waterworks, and manages a strong singing voice even whilst perched upon other people.

Perhaps the strongest example of Commedia dell’Arte can be seen with Toby Mulford’s Polonius, father of Ophelia and Laertes – here, converted into Dottore, the wanna-be doctor in Commedia dell’Arte, who thinks he knows it all but, in fact, knows very little. Faction of Fools’ production cleverly highlights that in a moment shared with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are not dead but, rather, deaf. The wonderfully mismatched pair, played by Amelia Hensley and Marianna Devenow, respectively, communicate with sign language, Polonius merely with over-the-top, nonsense gestures. Mulford earned his MFA from the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre, and his talent in this genre is evident.

The shows’ design elements enhance the topsy-turvy world that is a Shakespeare-turned-Commedia dell’Arte production. Aaron Cromie specially designed masks for this show, keeping alive this irreplaceable art form. (Masks are standard for Commedia, with a specific mask melting into a specific stock character). When paired with Denise Umland’s costuming, they remind us that all is not as it appears in Hamlet’s homeland. Here, even the “lovers” Ophelia and Laertes sport masks enhancing their characters’ appeal. The show makes mobile Ethan Sinnott’s stark, chilly set that sets the tone well for the eerie, ghost-filled nights and disordered days that characterize Shakespeare’s – and Faction of Fools’ – play.

Left to Right: Billy Finn (Capitano), John V. Bellomo (Laertes), Emma Crane Jaster (Ophelia), Eva Wilhelm (Gertrude), Matthew R. Wilson (Hamlecchino), and Rachel Spicknall (Horatio). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

If you enjoy classical work but find yourself in tears over most characters’ fates in the traditional Hamlet, enjoy Faction of Fools’ clownish Hamlecchino for a night of laughter instead. Who knows?  With the vigorous comedy careening around the stage, you  may end up with the fate of the crown in your own hands – literally.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Matthew R. Wilson (Hamlecchino). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Hamlecchino plays through May 19, 2012 at Gallaudet University’s Elstad Auditorium – 800 Florida Avenue NE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets here or at the door.  Directions to the auditorium can be found here.

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