“ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST” AT YALE REPERTORY THEATRE
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
By including “The Accidental Death of an Anarchist” by Dario Fo, one of the world’s most controversial playwrights of our time, James Bundy of Yale Repertory Theatre in conjunction with Berkley Repertory Theatre, has produced one of the best comedies of this season.
Dario Fo (even the name sounds clownish) received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997. He joined the Italian resistance during WWII and is a political activist. While Fo claims that he has never been a Communist, he criticizes the exploitation of workers and other oppressed groups throughout the world. The man is now 87 yrs. old and still kicking. According to Fo, “A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance.” The playwright also feels that no subject or institution is so sacred or so powerful that it cannot be made fun of. And, like Moliere, a satirist who also troubled clergy and king, Fo’s works (often compared to Saturday Night Live) became so offensive to the Roman Catholic Church and other powerful entities that they were banned from Italian media outlets for many years. In addition, in a country where freedom of speech is cherished, few Americans are aware that Fo and his wife (an actress) were banned entry to tour the United States in the 1980’s -- to the chagrin of our own famous artists and intellectuals, yet, Yale produced two of his plays that year. It is also ironic that “Accidental Death...” a play that focuses on the ineptitude of government bureaucracy and the influence of political power, is more recognized internationally than it is here.
Fo’s plays are presented in a modernized version of the Medieval, commedia dell’ art” form -- which features stock clowns. Therefore, “Accidental Death...” has its own “clowns.” We immediately notice that the actors are clowns because all the men’s pants are ridiculously short enough to reveal their white socks. Since clowns are stereotypes of various personalities, the central character of this play is called “The Maniac.” He represents the innocent “Fool” who tells the truth because he doesn’t know any better. This designation dates back to King’s Jesters. Jesters were clowns who could get away with insulting jokes because they were either physically deformed or mentally deficient. The association of genius with insanity comes to mind as well. One could easily infer that “The Maniac” in this play might represent its creator, Fo.
“Accidental Death ...” is based on an actual event in 1969. A suspected anarchist was accused of a bombing a bank in Milan. During his interrogation at the police station, the subject fell four stories to his death. Was it an accident? Was he pushed? Was it a suicide? The investigation of the circumstances were so bungled by police and influenced by political powers that to this day, no one knows exactly what happened. Due to protests and the play’s popularity, the case was re-opened and eventually it was suspected that fascist adversaries falsely accused the leftist suspect. In the end, no one was punished. Possibly, it was more convenient to get rid of the suspect than dig at the truth -- remind you of the JFK assassination?
The play’s setting is the police station where a portrait of the Pope hangs near the office doorway. A known “Maniac,” magnificently played by rubber-faced, limber-limbed clown, Steven Epp, is brought in. He’s about to be arrested once again for being a public nuisance (Think: shades of political activism?). He deliberately slaps the Pope’s picture when making his entrance and proceeds to drive the police administrators crazy with other, outlandish antics. When the dizzy official is called away, the Maniac answers the administrator’s phone and learns that an investigation about the bombing suspect’s death, may soon take place. A warning is issued to prepare for the inquiring judge. The Maniac is forgotten as everyone in the department scurries about trying to compile excuses for their negligence. Meantime, Maniac/Epp disguises himself as the expected judge. It turns out that the Maniac is a genius at impersonations and enjoys toying with the cops (Think: Fo?). His rapid-fire double talk -- about everything that apparently comes to his mind at once (witty, real life truisms) creates such confusion that the clown/cops (Liam Craig, Allen Gilmore, Eugene Ma, and Jesse Perez) agree to whatever tactics the Maniac slyly hints at, in an attempt to cover up their mistakes. A nifty, no nonsense, newspaper reporter (Molly Bernard) appears on the scene and becomes entangled in the mess (symbolically handcuffed to the others. Think: The press becomes constrained?). Like the unsolved, real case the audience is given a choice of two endings while the Maniac tinkers with a mechanical moonrise. “Luna,” or “moon” is the root of the word “lunatic.” The play ends as it began, with the cast singing, “Our Homeland is the Whole World …”
This 1970’s play is directed by Christopher Bayes and was adapted by Gavin Richards from a translation by Gillian Hanna. Since this is a translation and impromptu improvisations are encouraged, it’s difficult to tell where Fo left off. In any case, its rightly assumed that he would approve of the updated material. Those with quick intake will catch Epp’s amusing Marlin Brando (“...I could have been a contender”), John Wayne (“Hi, pilgrim”), Benito Mussolini (speech),“The Sound of Music”(Excerpts), clever comments about wars, banks and corporations (scandals), the 99% vs. the greedy 1%, downloading health insurance followed by “... but the NSA can watch my Netflix for free” etc. etc. etc.
Most comedies entertain with meaningless farce and silly-slapstick. However, if you enjoy your lighthearted fun spiced with stimulating satire and rendered by an outstanding cast, don’t miss this fine production!
Plays to Dec. 21. Tickets: 203-432-1234