Arts Desk

Silly Masks, Serious Ideas: Faction of Fools’ Don Juan Opens Tonight

DJ Elvira DonJuanThe question on Matthew R. Wilson's mind is "What is the game?"

When adapting a play, the director starts by identifying key themes. Then, he says, the question is, "OK how do we physicalize that? What's the game of that?" He means it somewhat literally: The director, who helms the new Faction of Fools production of Don Juan that opens tonight at Gallaudet, likes to coax better performances out of his actors by turning rehearsals into a kind of playtime.

On the evening I attended a rehearsal, Sun King Davis (as Don Juan) and Bess Kaye (as Dona Elvira) were playing Moliére's scenes in a way that Faction of Fools, a Commedia dell'Arte troupe, usually doesn't do plays. In one go, they practiced the scene as if they were in a Tennessee Williams play. When Kaye expressed some uncertainty, Wilson reassured her. "It's not a test, it's a game," he says. With that, they did the scene again, this time like they were performing a Sam Shepherd work. It's a playful technique, often used to coax out the nuances of a relationship by taking advantage of the actors' shared vocabulary.

When the company plays Moliére's comedy in its standard style, though, it finds that Don Juan is a natural fit for the troupe. The French dramatist incorporated many elements of commedia into his plays. But Don Juan is also totally revivable. Unlike other Moliére plays, it's based on a legendary story, so it's not especially trapped in any time or place. "I do feel like its Moliére at his best without being so blatantly 17th century French," says Wilson.

Don Juan provides an opportunity for Wilson to explore bigger social themes. "It's still really [Moliére] hammering the society and dealing with class and culture and status and all of those things... that surrounded Parisian culture that he never got tired of making fun of," he says. In Moliére's story about moral hypocrisy, Wilson sees an opportunity to explore the concept that the way we assign greatness to art is similar to the way we endow people with social status. "I am interested in culture and in taste," Wilson says, "in the production of culture, in the production of taste, how we learn that something is good art and something is bad art." To help establish that framework, he set the show in a fine art museum, employing Klyph Stanford to oversee both scenic and lighting designs. In what Wilson calls "an homage to my own art-appreciation class," Stanford is creating projections of famous works of art from throughout history that will serve as a backdrop to the action.

Big themes or not, though, laughter—through the use of masks, pantomime, and universally recognizable stock characters—is what commedia generally aims for. By the time the curtain rises, audiences won't see a heavy-duty work; Wilson likes to keep the jokes coming. A steady dose of humor keeps the audience's door open while allowing a few serious ideas to slip through.

Take Faction of Fools' 2012 production of A Commedia Romeo and Juliet. In Act 3, Juliet's father, Lord Capulet (played by Paul Reisman), dashes his daughter's hopes of a life with Romeo. She must marry Paris, the son of his friend, or she will be thrown out on the street. In Wilson's version, Reisman bookends the scene by entering and exiting with a funny walk and a goofy tune. The effect was to make the unfunny content even less funny. The use of humor emphasized the complete imbalance of power between Capulet and the women in his family. What made the audience laugh, Wilson says, is that Capulet could "throw her around and yell at her, and not notice that anything strange has occurred."

"I think it's a good thing when audiences do that," says Wilson, "when they go, I have been implicated in this man's vision of the world. I joined his team by laughing, which means I have empathy with him, I see his point of view."

Using more ridiculous elements in commedia may also widen the viewpoints an audience can access. That becomes especially evident when kids are in the crowd. "They eat up the shtick," says Wilson. "The kid laughs and suddenly everyone else chuckles, because they are now seeing [the show] through the kid's eye. Oh yeah, the kid thinks it's funny, and when you look at it that way, the kid's right."

The show runs Sept. 12 to Oct. 6 at Gallaudet University's Elstad Auditorium, 800 Florida Ave. NE.

Photo by Second Glance Photography

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