Theater’s greatest fools are more than just comic relief or a madcap vehicle for dirty jokes. Fools occupy a unique status in cultural society and artistic thought. They perform for kings, leaders, and nobility, but don’t hold the class status themselves. Their comedic intent allows greater permissibility; fools can straddle subjects otherwise thought obscene or offensive in the name of comedy. They can use their outsider status to present topics to a listening audience, and expose some of life’s harshest contradictions. Think of some of today’s most provocative comedians—Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, Hannibal Buress—and see how their comedy is not just entertaining or obscene, but also truthful and exposing (sometimes aggressively so).

Foolerie’s troupe of performers struggle with a difficult artistic question. Should their comedy be only entertaining—a happy escape from the world—or should it confront the inevitable sad truths of daily existence. Clowne (Ian Knauer) is the leader of the troupe, and he issues a comedy death-match to any audience member claiming to be funnier than him. One takes up the challenge and joins the theatrics under the title of Knave (Ryan Breslin). However, Knave incorporates ‘truth’ into the troupe’s show, a loosely-structured account of young William Shakespeare’s adventures based on his many works. Soon enough the performers start to long for a deeper and richer sort of storytelling.

Olivia Polci, Patrick Ridgewood, Chandler Reeves, Patrick Massey, Geoff Belliston, Ian Fairlee, Ian Knauer - Credit Lance Brown
Olivia Polci, Patrick Ridgewood, Chandler Reeves, Patrick Massey, Geoff Belliston, Ian Fairlee, Ian Knauer – Credit Lance Brown

It’s a grand task for a show to be both funny and deeply complex. Writer Santino DeAngelo asks some enormously important questions, but they are difficult enough to answer without having to simultaneously juggle Shakespearean-style plot and characters. It is clear that DeAngelo has thorough scholarly experience in theatre; his writing incorporates an exciting blend of theatre theory and history. Unfortunately, as Foolerie’s structure begins to complicate, so does its comprehensibility. I felt firmly confident in the show’s meta-capability through the first few musical numbers, but by intermission I felt alienated from both the plot and its artistic discussion. And by the story’s messy final twist, I was simply confused. Foolerie just couldn’t synthesize its already intricate play-within-a-play with its highly abstract ambitions. Foolerie should continue to explore these questions, but do so with a little more of a guided, user-friendly path.

There are plenty of other reasons to see Foolerie besides a desire to construct your own theory of comedy. There are plenty of show-stopping numbers brimming with hilarious lyrics and energetic music. The ambitiously mischievous Malvolio (Patrick Massey) and the lecherous Hospital John (Patrick Richwood) sing some of the musical’s most surprisingly uproarious numbers. Hospital John particularly enjoys the license to thrill with witty and shocking obscenity—Richwood gets to fearlessly play a racist Jewish stereotype and an eager pedophile. And though we could’ve done without the handful of jokes where rape was literally the punchline, the rest of DeAngelo’s humor was pitch-perfect.

Foolerie premiered at the New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015. The last performance is Monday, July 27.