You don't typically go into a production of Hamlet expecting to spend the evening laughing, but then again, Faction of Fools isn't afraid to defy expectations.
The small, newish theater company is D.C.'s lone celebrant of commedia dell'arte, the Italian form of theater characterized by masks, improv, clowning and caricatures. Faction of Fools' prowess with this obscure genre recently netted them the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company at the Helen Hayes Awards. With Hamlecchino, director and choreographer Matthew R. Wilson's selection of such an iconic work not only brings a fresh eye to a play that's been interpreted an exhausting number of times: Choosing something so familiar allows the audience to concentrate less on the script and more on the particulars and perspective of this rather obscure form of art.
Wilson is clearly a gifted director--every gesture, aside and movement in Hamlecchino feels choreographed, but the players move smoothly and expertly through their mugging and slapstick. The show provides its share of off-kilter surprises. An early scene between Hamlet (Wilson) and his father's ghost (David Gaines) is exasperatingly funny, as the players chase the spectre through Ethan Sinnott's expansive marble-esque set, a melange of hidden, slamming doors. Quick takes often provide big laughs in Hamlecchino, whether it's a photographer snapping King Claudius (Billy Finn) and his new wife Gertrude (Eva Wilhelm) in compromising positions, or living portraits of Hamlet's father and Claudius changing into progressively more ridiculous poses. Emma Crane Jaster's Ophelia shines in a sort of straightjacket ballet during her descent into madness. Composer Jesse Terrill's score, at some moments jaunty, other times swelling and cinematic, provides the backdrop.
In Hamlecchino, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren't just dead--they're deaf (a line spelling out as much may be the play's lone clunker). A conceit likely born out of Faction of Fools' residence at Gallaudet University, Hamlet's pair of less than steadfast chums sign rather than speak, and this proves a fascinating choice. A hearing audience can easily read between the lines (even if the characters surrounding them seem mystified), and the device puts the pair into their own little world, a fitting homage to the Tom Stoppard play.
Hamlecchino does have some solemn moments, though less than you'd expect from one of history's great tragedies. Ophelia's death is told of not only through Gertrude's words, but through Crane Jaster's own acrobatic soliloquy high in the rafters of the stage. The ridiculousness and pointlessness of many of the deaths in Hamlet is highlighted by a cartoonishly choreographed final swordfight (Claudius is stabbed not just not out of rage, but out of klutziness).
Hamlecchino's performers all appear well-versed in the particulars of commedia dell'arte. Wilhelm is great at drawing laughs from the show's bawdier moments; Finn is a pleasure as a smooth-talking, swaggering Claudius. As Horatio, Rachel Spicknall is Hamlecchino's closest answer to a straight man (well, in this case, straight woman), but Spicknall gets her own fun conceit to play with as a best friend who is clearly smitten with the Dane. Wilson, who has kind of a Nathan Lane quality to his delivery, is adept not only at physical comedy, but also at interplay with his audience. Don't get caught texting or nodding off during Hamlecchino--Wilson will heckle you sooner than any stand-up comedian.
Hamlecchino runs through May 19 at Elstad Auditorium at Gallaudet University (several performances are ASL interpreted by two lively performers). Tickets ($10-$25) are available at Faction of Fools' website.