The Alley Theatre demonstrates its strengths in presenting the world premiere of a new comedy by the prolific Theresa Rebeck, an acclaimed playwright and television writer with forays as well into novels and a memoir. Rebeck has said her plays were about "betrayal and treason and poor behavior" (New York Times, September 2007), and Fool lands foursquare in the middle of that description, as regicide threatens a 14th century king (treason), courtiers scheme against him (betrayal) and adultery is rampant (poor behavior).
The point-of-view is that of the kitchen help, and the kitchen is where the jester Stuart waits for his turn at entertaining offstage royalty, hearing and envying the laughs that another unseen jester, Joss, is getting. Then Joss enters, and it is Stuart's time to entertain offstage royalty, while Joss mocks his efforts. The jesters are competitors for comedy, but are linked to each other as part of the underclass, joined by the cook Lizabeth. As servants, all three are at the beck and call of their masters, merely pawns on a chessboard that may be deadly.
These three carry the play, on triumphant shoulders, helped by the deft direction of Gregory Boyd, Alley's artistic director. Jeremy Webb plays Stuart, and Webb's engaging smile and unflagging energy are delightful, and his reactions and body language are richly amusing. Elizabeth Bunch plays Joss, for this jester is a woman disguised as a man, and adds her beauty to extraordinary comical vivacity - she and Webb create not just hilarity but also a credible and strong relationship.
Carine Montbertrand plays the cook Lizabeth, a leading role, and she becomes in effect the third musketeer as she joins the jesters in scheming against the overlords. They scheme because the king and another visiting king have determined that the jesters will compete, with the winner gaining the position of court jester and the defeated losing his (or her) head. Montbertrand is energetic, quick, subtle, and also vastly amusing, and is a match for the comedic talents of Webb and Bunch.
We can tell that two courtiers are evil because they sneer and wear black, but Sean Dugan as Marvel and Joey Collins as Elliott still provide variety, and create vivid and intriguing portraits of overlords abusing the help, all with the smug smile of the privileged. And they add hilarity - playwright Rebeck makes good use of the unexpected kiss.
The king is played by Jeffrey Bean, who brings an imposing presence to the role of an amorous ruler. The Queen, who enters late in Act Two, is played by Alma Cuervo, who instead of leaning on royal authority, turns out to be chatty to the point of garrulity. Cuervo's strong presence brings to amusing life a portrait of a royal personage who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, as the Queen ties up the loose plot ends.
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There is (of course) cross-dressing, and in Act Two a very effective "chase" around a huge kitchen table, staged with wit and dexterity. The set captures the medieval feeling but this kitchen is severely under-furnished, as though looters had gotten there first. This is especially perplexing, as a variety of kitchen implements could have made the chase scene even more fun.
Playwright Rebeck is very inventive, and this new comedy is a welcome respite from the usual comedic domestic crises that playwrights fall back on. Rebeck creates credible characters with heart and soul, and makes us care about them, so that we become deeply involved in their welfare - important, when beheadings loom on the horizon.
A new play breezes into hilarity, with brilliant performances riding a taut, inventive script, to create delightful comedy. Fool continues through March 16, Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information or ticketing, call 713-220-5700 or contact www.alleytheatre.org.