Director Christopher Bayes and his frequent collaborator, the master actor-farceur Steven Epp, have delighted New Haven audiences in the recent past with their intelligently frenetic Yale Rep productions of “A Servant of Two Masters” and “A Doctor In Spite of Himself.” They now have taken on the challenge of staging Dario Fo’s 1970 “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” a deliberately pointed satire disguised as a madcap farce inspired by the actual death of a terrorist suspect in Milan, who may have jumped or been pushed from an interrogation room in the local police headquarters.
With their impressive grasp of commedia dell’arte techniques, Bayes and Epp could indeed be capable of presenting and updating the play for a contemporary audience, but at the same time one could also wonder that attempting to bring new life to a 40-year old work would turn out to be a Dario Faux-Pas.
The end result certainly allows Epp to demonstrate his ingratiating versatility in the lead role of the Maniac, a supposed madman with a reputation for impersonating such figures as surgeons, lawyers and professors, all for the fun of it. This allows Epp to serve as a Groucho Marx like host for the evening, taking the audience on a series of adventures that require quick changes, outsized disguises and verbal and physical hijinks designed to challenge authority figures at every step along with those who aid and abet them.
Bayes and Epp have updated the Gavin Richards adaptation (from a translation by Gillian Hanna) to include a plethora of contemporary American references, along with a few not so contemporary that no doubt soared right over the heads of some of the young Yalies in attendance (i.e., “here comes da judge”). Farce and in particular physical farce are not everyone’s cup of tea, and indeed the jokes can at times be just a little too ridiculous to bear. However, the puns, the sight gags, and the barrage of insults never stop coming, so that if you happen to not be amused by one bit of business, another one that may amuse you is just seconds away. At the last preview performance, reactions were scattered throughout the theater. The jokes got hearty laughs indeed, but each time it seemed that different people were laughing.
The evening does take a while to get going, with some opening Fo-play involving singing by the entire cast (in the grand commedia tradition) accompanied by two onstage musicians, which then segues into a lengthy opening scene that mixes exposition and verbal acrobatics but doesn’t begin to suggest the type of anarchic frenzy that one would anticipate. Fortunately, that will assuredly come later, particularly in a masterful second act in which the satire becomes more pointed and the audience’s growing familiarity with the characters begins to pay off.
Being that the play does deal with the question of police brutality and an official cover-up of what happened in the anarchist’s death (which has occurred before the play begins), I’m sure that there were several people in the audience who were reminded of the ongoing case of the young Yale professor who was mysteriously found dead in his jail cell two weekends ago and the questions surrounding the New Haven Police Department’s four day delay in acknowledging the death. This production wisely avoids sticking any such references into the evening, but with such events as the passing of Nelson Mandela and Putin’s crackdown on gays and lesbians in the news, it’s easy to accept the continued relevance of Fo’s attack on aberrant police and judicial systems.
With “Accidental Death,” Fo was challenging the official version of a terrorist attack in 1969 which pinned the blame on radical left-wing sympathizers. The incident is now widely acknowledged to have been a right wing plot abetted by the police to frame the left wing, although the question of what actually happened to the innocent, framed suspect remains unresolved. In the play, the Maniac decides to disguise himself as a judge supposedly assigned to “investigate” or “white-wash” the case in order to gain the trust of the police and tape record what actually happened. The subsequent comedy results primarily from the policemen’s various attempts to spin ever more elaborate and ridiculous explanations for what occurred while subject to the jabs, ridicule and sly peregrinations of the disguised Maniac.
In some insightful bits of casting, the cops resemble archtypes we have come to know from various sit-coms set in police headquarters. Here’s the hapless constable, there’s the exasperated police inspector, here comes the crafty duplicitous superintendent, there’s the wisecracking black detective: it’s like watching an episode of “Barney Miller” on molly. Watching Epp’s Maniac confuse and confound them as he figuratively envelops them in a web of their own making is quite delightful.
Liam Craig plays the Superintendent as a man who not only relies on his position for control, but who has clearly used his smarts and craftiness to come up with ingenious and fool-proof excuses to keep himself out of trouble. Allen Gilmore is his partner-in-crime who isn’t above using a bit of black swagger to maintain his authority and superiority. The slightly oversized Eugene Ma plays two constables, one on the ground floor of police headquarters and one on the fourth floor, who look and act practically identically, save for a pasted on mustache. He portrays the stooge in each situation quite humorously and enjoyably.
Jesse J. Perez conveys frustration and exasperation quite ably in the role of Inspector Bertozzo who won’t stand for the Maniac’s shenanigans, even when the cops upstairs get the Maniac to disguise himself even further as a visiting forensics expert, in order to keep the truth from an inquisitive left-wing reporter, played appropriately with a loud Italian hauteur and impatience by a red-dressed Molly Bernard.
Aaron Halva and Nathan A. Roberts, while dressed as policemen, provide onstage accompaniment with their self-composed score, on an assortment of conventional and unusual instruments (toy piano, baritone ukulele). They are very occasionally called upon to respond to the action, usually to sass back one of the other characters.
Kate Noll’s set features a grungy police inspector’s office, with desk, filing cabinet, a few piles of paper and a very large window that looks out over the surrounding city. A clever sight joke involves the city scape rising, with the help of one of Michael F. Bergmann’s projections, to simulate an elevator ride to a very similarly looking the fourth floor inspector’s office. Bergmann’s projections enhance the onstage goings-on, whether providing the words to an attempted audience sing-a-long or enhancing one of the cops’ scenarios for the so-called accidental death.
Elivia Bovenzi’s costumes showcase the cops in all their schlub glory, while providing the Maniac with just the right amount of disguise for his various incarnations. The lighting is by Oliver Wason which duplicates the bright fluorescent of a standard bureaucratic office, while changing hues and intensity for a few more subtle or intense moments.
But the evening, for all that works and does not work, belongs to the tag team of Bayes and Epp. They try to focus the play’s absurdity on the original targets of Fo’s work, but in the intervening years since the play was first produced, police corruption and judicial complicity are essentially taken for granted so that the satire loses a lot of it’s bite. Epp, supposedly breaking character, attempts to insert some up-to-the minute relevance to the proceedings, dragging in everything from the NSA to the government shutdown, reflecting the practice obviously endorsed by the Nobel-winning Fo to make this play as meaningful as possible to the local audience. Bayes and Epp’s interpolations don’t stray too far from the original, but instead attempt to recreate for today the anarchic humor of the piece. And as he has demonstrated during his last two outings at Yale Rep, Epp is a convincing physical comedian who despite an academic looking appearance can find a way to endear himself to an audience and use them like putty in his hands. He certainly deserves the praise, “Fo he’s a jolly good fellow.”
“Accidental Death of an Anarchist” plays at Yale Rep through December 21. For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 203.432.1234 or visit the theater’s website at www.yalerep.org.
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