- Matt Wilson (Courtesy of Faction of Fools)
There are 12 16th-century characters that Matt Wilson portrays in his Great One-Man Commedia Epic (Through Sunday at Woolly Mammoth), but none of them are as important as the single 21st-century character: The actor, himself. As Wilson plays every part, those characters may be secondary to the big question that pops into the heads of audience members at the beginning of the show: Can he pull this off?
"I was trying to figure out how to make it really slick and engineered and seamless," says Wilson, "But the entire point of Commedia is to celebrate the mistakes and disasters and confusions."
In one of the early performances of the show in Europe, everything that would possibly go wrong, did. Props were misplaced, objects fell off tables, things needed for one scene weren't moved into place for later scenes.
But when things went so terribly awry, "the show got funnier," says Wilson. "I've started to embrace the catastrophes. We all had a great time, and I said, I've been going about this all wrong... That's when it started to take this new shape, and when the performer himself became a real character in the play, and someone the audience connects with and roots for."
As for the other 12 characters, they range from servants to captains to maidens, all of whom interact with each other (via quick-changing Wilson) in a story of two lovers and the forces that keep them apart. The characters and story form all date back to the Italian Renaissance tradition of Commedia dell'Arte, from which many of our modern clowning traditions are derived. And even though the tradition is more than 400 years old, Wilson – and his all-Commedia company, Faction of Fools – thinks it's more important and relevant now than ever.
"In the last few years, America has started to embrace spectacle and physical theater – things like Cirque du Soleil and the Blue Man Group," says Wilson. "Theater is starting to say, 'We can't compete with TV on its terms, so let's do something different.'"
That means that while TV and movies look forward, theater looks back.
"I think people started to say, 'What's unique about theater? What does it mean that we're all in the same room, that this is happening in front of us? That we're breathing the same air?'" says Wilson. "In thinking about those things, people have discovered that older styles had a lot to offer that's exciting and interesting."
And that's one of the reasons Wilson turned to Commedia, an art form practiced by only a handful of theater groups across the country. He studied in Italy with Antonio Fava, a master of the art form.
"Most people who study theater have to learn about [Commedia], but it's one answer on a final exam," says Wilson. "Unfortunately, very few people move past that stage."
But Wilson thinks that will soon change. Faction of Fools may be the only Commedia company in town, but it isn't the only place you can see physical theater in D.C. -– Wilson cites Constellation Theater, and Dog and Pony D.C. as other companies that perform traditionally-inspired works that can only be enjoyed in person.
"It's about how it's happening in real time and you don't know what's coming next," says Wilson. "This is exciting. This is how [theater] was originally intended to be."