Faction of Fools does it again with an innovative production of Thornton Wilder’s revolutionary and Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town, which originally debuted in 1938 about a New Hampshire town at the turn of the century and also death, love, marriage, life, and making breakfast.
This is an inspired choice for Faction of Fools, a troupe dedicated to Commedia dell’Arte – a Renaissance style of clowning around that includes masks, acrobatics, and exaggerated stock characters. Wilder’s play was wildly innovative for the time – breaking the fourth wall, using pantomime, and playing with time. It’s a small step from pantomime to masks, from “everyman” characters to the archetypes of Commedia.
Matthew R. Wilson is at the helm of this intricate production, billed as both director and choreographer and he does a heck of a job creating visual metaphors as the actors become a mountain and then a city street and also painting pictures during scenes themselves as two characters snapping beans becomes a dance.
He also sticks to Wilder’s original instructions for a bare stage and minimal props – taking that one step further again with two sound effect stations like an old radio play. If actors are not onstage, they are on the sidelines creating the whish of a ball through the air, the bubbling of a soda, slamming doors, and just about every other sound you could want in concert with the actors miming it onstage. The level of rehearsal this must have taken is insane. Sound Designer Roc Lee also had his hands full making sure we could hear both the whistle of fabric and the slamming of a door.
Ethan Sinnott consulted on the scenic design. Onstage the only furniture are a couple of tables and three huge ladders. The lighting by Michael Barnett did a lot of the heavy lifting – conjuring sunsets or sunrises or gravesites with no other help. Denise Umland made some very interesting consumes. The actors wear undergarments from the time – adding the hint of a dress or a suit as they enter a character. The other main hint about character comes from the traditional masks made by Sarah Conte.
Each actor plays a variety of characters, noted in the program as “et al,” and certainly what stands out the most is their strength as an ensemble. It takes a lot of trust to jump into someone’s arms from a falling ladder and then roll off the stage with them.
The play centers on two families who live next door, the Gibbs and the Webbs. Each actor does a great job of carving out a strong personality and story amidst the acrobatics. Mrs. Gibbs and Doc Gibbs (Julie Garner and Toby Mulford) are a sweet old married couple. Mrs. Webb and Editor Webb (Natalie Cutcher and Paul Reisman) are a not-so-sweet couple who love each other just as much. Kathryn Zoerb (Rebecca Gibbs) had the most physical roles; at one point she was stuck up a ladder through intermission. John Cartwright II (Wally Web, Prof. Willard) had the greatest contrast in roles between a little boy and a wizened professor. He also uses American Sign Language, furthering the company’s partnership with Gallaudet University.
Joe Grasso and Rachel Spicknall Mulford played a host of other characters and are often on sound effects. Darren Marquardt (Simon Stimson) is a standout as the town drunk. All other choir conductors will pale in comparison from here on out.
The heart of the play is the young couple Emily Webb and George Gibbs (Teresa Spencer and Drew Kopas). They do a great job aging their characters through the years and showing the joys and sorrows of love.
The only character who is not masked is The Stage Manager (Matthew Pauli) who talks all about “our town” and holds his own with the other actors who can exaggerate much more.
Our Town is an American classic, but that’s not what you take away from this Faction of Fools production. As Wilder says, “Whenever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense.” Commedia is all about holding a microscope up to all our nonsense and showing how vulnerable and human it makes us.
Faction of Fools’ Our Town is a beautiful and poignant fresh take on this classic. I felt like I’ve never really understood the play before now.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with two 10-minute intermissions.
Our Town plays through June 21, 2015 at Faction of Fools performing at Gallaudet University’s Eastman Studio Theatre (Elstad Annex) – 800 Florida Ave NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 838-3006, or purchase them online.