The premise of Foolerie centers on a clowning competition between the aptly named Clowne and a modern day Knave challenger. At the Earl’s behest, the two engage in a battle of fooling that bears extraordinarily high stakes: the winner is crowned Biggest Fool in the Land (purportedly an honor) and the loser is put to death. With the help of a supporting cast of Elizabethan actors, both competitors employ Shakespeare’s best-known characters to concoct a fictional story for the Earl’s amusement.
The crux of the show is the two competitors’ conflicting philosophies about the nature of foolery (the concept, not the title): while the Clowne believes the purpose of a true fool is to distract the audience from the woes of life with ridiculous stories and bawdy humor, the Knave asserts that a fool ought to depict all of life’s emotional ups-and-downs. This schism is certainly a worthy one to consider and composer, lyricist and bookwriter DeAngelo leaves his audience with intriguing thoughts on the subject; however, his argument suffers from the facts that the Clowne just isn’t that funny and the Knave just isn’t that emotional. Likewise, the looming punishment of death appears to have little-to-no effect on the challengers, who appear to exhibit little-to-no competitive intensity or even drive to win.
These dramaturgical inconsistencies are emblematic of some overarching issues regarding the show’s style. Namely, DeAngelo’s attempts at good, old-fashioned raunchy humor prove to be a bit too old-fashioned. For instance, the players repeatedly make fun of one of their more effeminate cohorts for his desire to portray female roles; meanwhile, they joke about the Jewish character being a swindling cheapskate and a sexual predator. I have reservations about these jokes not because they are offensive, but because they are tired. Judging by the audience’s reactions, our increasingly cross-culturally aware and inclusive mentalities are no longer (pun intended) stimulated by run-of-the-mill sodomy jokes.
But to dwell on these aspects is to ignore its numerous merits: despite the handful of missteps, Foolerie is on the whole a lovely little anachronistic romp straddling the 16th and 21st centuries. DeAngelo succeeds in creating a tuneful pastiche score with hints of Elizabethan whimsy and contemporary pop. Director Tralen Doler matches the script and score with equally charming direction that (mercifully) incorporates the perfect amount of audience participation: scenic designer Jen Price Fick’s charmingly haphazard set seats approximately twelve audience members onstage, and throughout the show, they are asked to help the players further the plot.
Thankfully, the cast of characters is on board to embrace its inner fool. Ian Knauer and Ryan Breslin play against each other well as the Clowne and the Knave, respectively. In the supporting cast, Ian Fairlee stands out as the flamboyant, frantic Merry Foole while Chandler Reeves’ deserves more time to showcase her impeccable mezzo-soprano as Miller, a Cleane Foole. And perhaps most notably, leading the proceedings as the always offstage Earl is the prerecorded voice of Gilbert Gottfried, who delivers exactly the irresistibly grating performance you would expect from him.
Ultimately, The New York Musical Theatre Festival is a venue intended to support new works, foster emerging writers, and encourage young talent to sharpen their craft, and based on those criteria, I am pleased to report that Foolerie is a strong addition to this year’s event. The aforementioned notion that “death is easier than comedy” is not to be taken lightly, and DeAngelo and his team deserve credit for a largely successful take on Shakespearean entertainment.
Foolerie (July 22 – 27, 2015)
New York Musical Theatre Festival
PTC Performance Space
555 West 42nd Street, Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.nymf.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission
This largely enjoyable mixed bag of humor and heart is part Elizabethan homage and part thesis.