Commie comedy

The laughs come wrapped in pinko packaging in Theatre Three's We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!

Italian commie provocateur Dario Fo got kicked around but good in a recent New Yorker article concerning the sometimes nasty political entanglements of the Nobel Prize's Swiss nominating committee for literature. The 72-year-old Fo nabbed the literature award last year, but nobody seems to know why--or at least, nobody in this magazine article. One man who was gearing up to participate in this year's judging sniffed: "Obviously, there are a number of great playwrights alive today. That goes without question. And Dario Fo is not among them." A prominent American publisher familiar with the committee declared, "I don't even know what it is you could call what Dario Fo does, but literature is not a word that comes to mind."

You might call what the still-thriving Fo does political theater. But not political in the sense of, say, Harold Pinter's occasional stabs at bureaucracy: Government or business hierarchies themselves are the enemies with him, and their human components are the footsoldiers waging a bloody battle against their own humanity. No, Fo is unabashedly partisan in his bayonet use. For him, capitalism sucks and must be impaled; socialism is the field to be defended, the most suitable soil for the blossoming of human dignity. He also hates the Catholic Church, or at least the Vatican. Fo's plays, monologues, and multi-leveled one-man shows use very early and elemental theatrical conventions--many of his mischievous characters are simply called "The Clown" or "The Fool"--to marinate his very specific beefs, tenderize them, and make them palatable. His success depends on whether you're willing to chew on the same witty albeit stridently monolithic slab of pinko propaganda all evening in the theater.

Don't get me wrong--I'd pick up the bar tab for a long conversation with Fo. His name appears on the enemies lists of the U.S. State Department (Fo's politics kept him banned from America until 1984), Ronald Reagan, and the Pope (the man in the tall hat apparently didn't care for Fo's The Pope and The Witch, in which the Catholic leader has a mind-changing vision and begins aggressively stumping for free abortion on demand).

But my first exposure to the man's sensibility, Theatre Three's rousing if uneven production of We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay, left me with a sore neck from nodding so much in agreement. I wholeheartedly concur that both capitalist and Catholic bureaucracies have had a poisonous effect in many people's lives. The frantic farce construction that Fo has given We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay! and that Theatre Three has strenuously re-created made me feel as though I was being hectored: Wild shenanigans triggered by mistaken identities and misinterpreted information were presumably crafted to make the agitprop go down easier. Although I enjoyed several hearty laughs, the indigestion took its toll.

Theatre Three's production--a restaging of a much more modest Lean Theater version that featured almost the entire cast a few years back--unfolds around gigantic cardboard images of a hugely pregnant but still sexy as hell Sophia Loren. Set designer Harland Wright has created this as an appropriate motif for an earthy Italian comedy that deals, on the surface, with marriage and motherhood.

The central philosophical question of We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay! can be summed up in one character's angry question: "Is it better to die of hunger than break the law?" Pissed-off wives Antonia (Sharon Bunn) and Margherita (Mary Anna Austin) are part of a matriarchal revolt against the high food prices that have forced the poor citizens of Milan to subsist on irregular staples like birdseed and frozen rabbits' heads. They spontaneously begin shoplifting decent food from stores by hiding the wares under their coats, but wind up having to keep them there to hide them from their respective husbands Giovanni (Thurman Moss) and Luigi (Terry Dobson). Wild explanations about sudden pregnancies ensue and are complicated by two investigating police officials--one snottily officious, the other a guy hard on his luck just like these families. Both are played by Tom Lenaghen.

The night I attended, almost all the laughs happened during the second act, when the confusion kicks into high gear. The first act is long and dry and creaks under the weight of all the proletariat hard-sell. I'm not sure whether director Thurman Moss could have alleviated this in any way except doing some heavy cutting, which would defeat the playwright's purpose. I had another problem with Moss, the actor, while he was onstage. All the actors have acquired overheated Italian accents for this show, which suited me just fine. Moss has a strong Texas twang that has charmed me before on stage. But in this context, most actors would strive to drop it faster than Tallulah Bankhead dropped her skirt. Moss seems to be living in Milan, Texas, not Milan, Italy. He veered wildly between the two, and sometimes brought them together into an accent that has never before been heard on earth. He got big laughs during the second act, so maybe I was bothered by this more than the rest of the audience. I was, however, utterly delighted by Sharon Bunn and Mary Anna Austin--they make a great "Lucia and Ethelina" team.

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