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A Farce Unto Itself: “Accidental Death of An Anarchist” Rollicks the Yale Rep

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Theater production of Dario Fo's play "Accidental Death of An Anarchist" at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

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A Farce Unto Itself: Fo’s “Accidental Death of An Anarchist” Rollicks the Yale Rep

Play: Accidental Death of An Anarchist by Dario Fo, directed by Christopher Bayes

Theater: Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, CT, running November 30-December 21, 2013

Cast, In order of Appearance:

Bertozzo Jesse J. Perez

Constables Eugene Ma

Maniac Steven Epp

Pissani Allen Gilmore

Superintendent Liam Craig

Feletti Molly Bernard

Musicians, Onstage and Active:

Aaron Halva and Nathan A. Roberts

Designers:

Scenic Kate Noll

Projections Michael F. Bergmann

Costumes Elivia Bovenzi

Sound Charles Coes

Lighting Oliver Wason

A Farce Unto Itself: Fo’s “Accidental Death of An Anarchist” Rollicks the Yale Rep

Circus music starts the romp and sets the rhythm and tone for a nearly two hour commedia dance and sing-along in Dario Fo’s 1970 farce Accidental Death of An Anarchist receiving an updated delivery at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Director Christopher Bayes and the production’s creative Team which includes co-producer Berkeley Repertory Theatre hoists a helluva piñata decorated with public commentary and full of pop culture confetti bits, busts it open with non-stop whacks from Comedy’s past, and has the audience chuckling as it grabs bits it recognizes.

The play, originally written as a direct and immediate response to the bungled interrogation of a suspect in a 1969 Milan bank bombing, tells the story of how the police over-stepped and then re-stepped their interrogation techniques. A madman who favors impersonation is interrogated and released, but comes back incognito to prepare police for official and journalistic inquiries into their interrogation of a suspected anarchist who somehow died while in police care. It is a satire whose topic of corruption is more commonplace than outrageous in today’s USA, despite alleged accountability, freedom of information, and Internet dissemination of acts “gone viral.” This production offers a riotous romp of rarely seen energy proportions, and the director wants the audience to think just a little and laugh a lot.

Laugh, I did, at times out loud, once or twice accompanied by a huge smile and an auditory exclamation that escaped my theater silence, “Whaaaa?!,” and frequently as a theatrician who loved hearing the audience take pleasure in a performance. True, a full house packed with friends, family, colleagues, fellow School of Drama students and teachers will be most generous with reactions on opening night, and seats padded with press journalists will fill the air with intense detail-focused scrutiny that makes the supporters amp up their delight, but this production truly has a bit for everyone.

No matter how severe your take on left and right or what is the center of politics, and definitely no matter what style of comedy makes you laugh, this production pulls out all the stops, goes way past emulate to downright copy and steal from the Greats, and WILL make you laugh. The production has so much fun making fun of itself that self-referential humor becomes just another viable technique employed and guaranteed to connect the audience and the characters in this zany, angst-ridden, anxious, Vaudeville skit with a hinted-at conscience.

The production ambitiously blends many elements of theater arts and periods to create and maintain its over-the-top level of energy. Think Pandora in its modern incarnation in music genres selected as “radio stations” on the free website of that name, and the Greek myth per se. This production attempts to leak from when the lid is first popped every possible type of gag- not in a dribble, but a torrent- until the sticker at the bottom of the box would outright demand of everyone who laughed even once, “What are you going to do? No, really, what are you going to do?” Recollect a gag or famous routine in comedy, and you’ll see or hear reference to it at least once over the course of the production. As the production grows and possibly morphs during its run here and then moves to the Berkeley Rep stage, even more types of gags may be incorporated, although this reviewer is hard-pressed to think of many funny tricks left unincorporated by Director Bayes and his inventive cast.

Director Christopher Bayes is currently a Professor at Yale School of Drama and Head of Physical Acting, and his production serves as an excellent exercise in physical acting for comedic effect. The actors use mugging, singing, dancing, pratfalls, slapstick, deadpan, and even waving wooden limbs to coax, urge, and yank outbursts from the audience. The Director tunes the actors to locate, accent, and punch the variety. He uses slow motion, the classic chase scene, climbing over furniture and hanging out windows, and more. Audience members will recognize antics of Danny Kaye made famous in his rendition of The Inspector General, Marx Brothers popping each other, Monty Python, and a little Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny. Gleason is here, I swear I “saw” George Burns and Dick Van Dyke; this production offers sit-com, stand-up, skits, dirty jokes, variety show, and, yes, more. It references body parts for humor’s sake, without stooping to the scatological. Bayes’ production stays lofty in its pursuit and delivery of demonstrative comedic genius.

Therein may lie the rub. Its brilliance in the realm of actor physicality wrestles incongruently with the situational reality of the play which was written as a biting political commentary on real events of that day, and allegedly features updates to make it pertinent to today. In this production, the story’s unfolding does not live in either 1970 nor 2013, but vacillates and bounces around to whatever moment in physical comedy’s past that will best serve delivery for impact of that moment. Impactful, it is, when referring to the chomps taken from previous successes of comedy starting with the format of Commedia dell’arte right through to the new millennium. But in its additions of updated material, the play loses its sharp focus of what “Big Brother” topics concern current society, and becomes more pop than zip.

There are references to The Hobbit, Brando’s famous “Stella!” in Streetcar, TV commercials, Rocky, and even Free Willy, but the teeth intended to bite the “shit heals” and politicos apparently are a set of dentures soaking in a glass of fizzy blue water on the shelf behind the Encyclopedia of Physical Comedy. For instance, the Boston Bombing is brought up in a tag line, and the phrase “Zero Dark Thirty” is blurted in a succession of cultural mentions, but I didn’t hear many other newspaper headlines referenced. I wonder if I was laughing at something happening onstage and missed the numbers 9-11, or exclamation of the phrase, “Lockdown!” And, of course, because this rendition is a jaunty physical frolic and not a stabbing political farce, the tragic, “unexplained death of an academian” currently mystifying the New Haven County Medical Examiner seems too politically incorrect a topic to toss into the mix for consideration, as is the recent government shutdown that ignited fires and caused financial explosions in many American households. This play, penned by a Nobel Prize-winning playwright, in a different production might focus more on bringing new millennium societal matters to light in order to affirm that culpability ultimately lies in the inquiries and subsequent actions of a discerning public. Fo’s purpose for writing the play, as stated within it, and any subsequent updating of it, urges producers to “use your pen to lance the public boil […of noticing, but not challenging…] the flagrant abuse of power.”

Kate Noll’s scenic design embraces the traditional proscenium arch, deftly finished to look crumbly and deteriorated, that frames the police station interior. The band comprised of only two musicians but many instruments sits onstage and is very much part of the interactive ensemble, and visible to the audience are the unmasked stage areas on either side. A large, old spot light points to center from its position downstage near the audience, and serves as a symbolic reminder that all this silliness strives to shine light on very important issues.

The infamous window out of which the Anarchist was either pushed or had fallen sits unadorned on the back wall, has nothing blocking accidental or purposeful egress, and reveals rooftop views of old Milan. Michael Bergmann projects images on the cop shop walls that take the audience up and down floors of the building, into infernos and clouds, and provides the words for the Anarchist’s Song which the audience sings with the characters in one of their many breaks of the fourth wall. There’s even a fine discothèque collaboratively created with Lighting Designer Oliver Wason.

The five male actors in this production work as an ensemble that fabulously plays off of and with each other’s contributions, as well as the audience’s involvement. Even when not breaking the fourth wall, the audience is engaged in their antics like when watching a familial toddler learn to walk. There are gasps of incredulity and sheer joy witnessing their discoveries. Jesse Perez, Eugene Ma, Liam Craig, and Allen Gilmore rise to the mastery of Steven Epp to create with their faces the traditional masks of Commedia dell’arte, and bend, twist, and move their bodies again and again with a limberness outgrown by most by adolescence. Their timing is impeccable, as well as their control. Mr. Gilmore, as Pissani, at times makes his face seem twice as long by dropping his chin to his chest without tilting his head! At one point, Mr. Craig, as the Superintendent, turns his nearly bald head into a glaring red fireball and pushes himself to a point seemingly just short of a stroke, and, boy, can he wag his finger. Mr. Perez, playing Bertozzo, does backbends worthy of gymnastic competition, and Mr. Ma plays the Constables with a stunned response to the others’ actions that never gets old. Steven Epp must be made of glue, because it’s hard to take eyes off of him. He has such presence, even when he’s fidgeting with something on the desk, and another actor is doing something incredibly funny. He glides in and out of farcical character and actor-in-aside.

Molly Bernard, who plays journalist Feletti, appears in a stark red dress and achieves her character’s vocational quality of pointing by always having her legs in angles askew to her body. Her staunch, cold stares at the police officials and directly at the audience belie her small and seemingly fragile physical stature. She’s on the stage with some true greats, and although not yet matching their standard, is on her way.

Anyone who appreciates an actor’s stamina and control of both their vocal and physical faculties will appreciate the work done here. Techniques cultivated by Vocal Coach Walton Wilson and experience gained from much of the cast’s previous theater endeavors together present a unification of effort that varies from moment to moment and allows every word to be heard, no matter the pitch, tone, or timbre. The work of the ensemble as cast and improv troupe with an integral musical band is nothing short of awesome.

All the sight gags, songs, and sound cues, expert acting, silly costumes designed by Elivia Bovenzi that have pant leg hems short enough to metaphorically and literally highlight each character’s Achilles heel, and a story wrought with intrigue deliver a rollicking frolic of lively frivolity and high production values. This production provides a wonderful diversion chock full of opportunities to appreciate synergy of stagecraft and to enjoy a range of giddiness from snicker to boisterous guffaw.

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