As much as modern culture claims to worship novelty, innovation and even disruption, there is a lot to be said for the tried and true. From an imaginative rendition of a beloved Shakespeare play to the triumphant 22nd installment in a favorite movie franchise, well-done familiarity breeds content. The well-done part is key; insipid imitations are what give repetition a bad rap.
There is almost nothing new about Faction of Fools’ The Great Commedia Hotel Murder Mystery–and that is the basis of its considerable charm. It is a deft blend of an old thing–the Agatha Christie-esque drawing-room murder mystery–with a very old thing, Commedia dell’Arte. The first brings the classic “dark and stormy night” with thunder, dramatic music and opportune sudden blackouts, all the suspicious strangers mysteriously brought together at the Hotel McGuffin, the murder, and the Great Detective who must interview all the suspects and solve the mystery while they are all cut off from civilization. Commedia dell’Arte brings elements so old that they are unfamiliar, and yet carry the seeds of many modern forms of theater. This original form of professional stagecraft is a Renaissance innovation, in which characters in masks portray stock characters in carefully choreographed comic scenes, each sillier than the last. It is highly artificial and stylized, and very funny.
All this is pulled off with frothy verve by Playwright-Director Paul Reisman, a longtime veteran of Faction of Fools, which is capping its 10th season with this comic confection. He pulls together all the requisite elements–exaggerated characters, ludicrous plot, repeated gags, tag lines, funny walks, mistaken identities, body doubles, double takes, spit takes, threats of comic violence that never quite land, slaps that go awry, chase scenes, pratfalls, and overwrought acting.
Reisman is aided and abetted by his expert team–Composer Jesse Terrill provides the thunder, music and ominous “DUN DUN DUUUUUH!!” sound that punctuates each revelation in the mystery. Lighting Designer Chris Curtis gives us the requisite blackouts at appropriate times to allow the dastardly deed to be done and leave everyone with an opportunity, as well as lighting changes for flashbacks when characters explain their roles in the action. Set Designer Bridgid K. Burge presents a hallway with doors suitable for slamming, which rotates into an impressive drawing room with de rigueur secret passages. Kitt Crescenzo’s costumes evoke the 1940s-era hotel uniforms and guests’ finery well, especially the glamorous velvet and diamante dress of the femme fatale. And, crucially, Kathryn Zoerb, the Commedia Coach, brings all the actors into the balletically bumbling style of movement that is crucial to the comedy when most of the characters are wearing masks.
Zoerb also plays the Bellhop (the stock character of the Zanni or zany servant) with glee. Whether providing her own sound effects while chasing a fly, ramping up her repeated tag lines, or making an extended bit out of picking up a stack of luggage, she is consistently delightful. She is suitably foiled by Colin Connor as the Concierge, another Wily Servant character, who provides most of the exposition, and whose pigeon-breasted silly walk is a treat in itself. Tori Boutin, as the Maid, makes a lovely third member of the savvy servant trio, and although she spends much of the show adjusting her stockings or being chased around by the bellhop, as the role requires, she is also amusingly capable when it comes to disposing of the body.
The Guests conform similarly to the stock tropes of Commedia. Kelsey Painter makes a capable Old Miser, Bernard Bottomdollar, adroitly pulling off a good deal of physical comedy, from difficulties getting down off of a sofa to several scenes on the floor in comic rigor mortis. Francesca Chilcote as his wife, the amorous Signora Zelda Bottomdollar, manages to combine glamor and zany comedy in equal measure, for example when she faints gracefully on the sofa–flat on her face. Darius Johnson, as her suave lover The Gentleman, shows his dance acumen in every smooth move. Graham Pilato, as the Dottore (pompous know-it-all) character Dr. Lionel Lastword, has the most verbal rather than physical comedy, and he delivers his ludicrously long speeches with gusto. And as the last requisite member of the mystery plot, Ben Lauer embodies the Detective as Hercule Poirot with strong undertones of Inspector Clouseau. His finest moment among many is when he has something approaching an existential crisis when interrogating himself as the last remaining suspect.
Last, but definitely not least, is Chukwudi Kalu as the butcher-knife-wielding Cook, another member of the servant group. I mention him separately because he represents what is innovative in this production. Since 2011, Faction of Fools has made its artistic home at Gallaudet University, and Kalu is the production’s Gallaudet intern. He adeptly performs his role in American Sign Language, with other actors translating. There are also ASL interpreters for many of the performances, and surtitles above the stage (watching the interpreters emote and the surtitles transcribe the silly sound effects is a treat that would be worth a second viewing). This inclusive bilingualism melds perfectly with the style of the show both because the clowning is so physical and because Commedia has traditionally made use of multiple languages not only for the comic potential of miscommunication, but also to cross borders. Enriching the long tradition of Commedia by incorporating Deaf culture feels like a natural update.
There is one element that encapsulates everything that is so satisfying about Faction of Fools‘ The Great Commedia Hotel Murder Mystery. At the start of the show, the Bellhop enters, carrying something that looks a bit like a wooden sword. It is two flat pieces of wood, joined at one end, that make a loud noise when hit. Although I had never seen one before, I knew immediately that this was a literal slapstick, a device to provide the sound of smacks, from which that entire style of exaggerated humor derives. At one point, after two comically misdirected slaps, one character hauls off and smacks another, with a loud WHACK of the slapstick. “What was that for?!?” the slappee cries indignantly. “Consistency,” the slapper replies. As everyone knows instinctively, jokes come in threes, and if there is no reason for it, one does it anyway, for tradition’s sake. Part of the joy in humor comes in surprise, but much of it comes from the satisfaction of repetition, of fulfilling the formula particularly well.
Faction of Fools updates the tropes of the past by reaching even further into the past, and comes up with something both refreshing and familiar. It is not a deep character study or a challenging examination of the crises of our time. It is comedy stripped down to its essentials, and it satisfies our deep, secret longing for tried-and-true, traditional entertainment. It is the theatrical equivalent of an old family recipe updated with fresh ingredients and beautifully made. Buon appetito!
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Faction of Fools‘ The Great Commedia Hotel Murder Mystery runs through May 19, 2019, at Eastman Studio Theatre – Elstad Annex, Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Ave NE, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006, or go online.
Masks by Aaron Cromie and Tara Cariaso; Performance Interpreters, Dr. Lindsey D. Snyder and Mary Beth Morgan