Commie comedy

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.

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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.  

Ultimately, however, their charms were insufficient to rescue me from the playwright's self-righteous political lecturing in We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay! The most persuasive theatrical powers are the ones that indulge ambiguity and contradiction, those gray areas that paper the ceilings and walls and floors of human experience. Fo's stabs at the Catholic Church were probably equally strident, but they seemed to me more harmoniously married to the farce, such as when Antonia and Margherita are forced to invent a saint and a miracle to keep their stolen goodies hidden. You wonder how many Catholic officials throughout the centuries have done the same.

With his anti-capitalism swipes, Fo certainly could retain complexity and still make a salient point--the desire of a few people to make a lot of money affects a lot of people, often in cruel ways. Being unfamiliar with the Fo canon, I can't say whether the man writes literature, or whether he deserved last year's Nobel Prize. But We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay! is often shrill in making vital points. Let's put it this way: Dario Fo could be called the punk rocker of world theater, a man who's saying important things loudly and obnoxiously to institutions that don't want to hear them. Punk rock did that in the '70s with corporate, pompous rock and pop (not to mention the English monarchy and parliament) and created some intelligent, provocative hybrids as a result of the confrontation. But now, as ever, the "cause" of punk will never be as edifying as its effects.

We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay! runs through November 22. Call 871-3300.

Words like "provocative" and "challenging" certainly apply to 11th Street Theatre Project's double-bill of one-acts, David Mamet's Reunion and Joyce Carol Oates' Ontological Proof of My Existence. Pairing these shows is an intriguing contrast-comparison on several levels. Both heavily concern a grown daughter's relationship with her father. Both are being performed with hearing and deaf audiences in mind--Reunion is performed in sign language by deaf actors, with two performers providing voice-over dialogue for the hearing, and Ontological Proof of My Existence is performed vocally by hearing actors, with a sign interpreter on stage guiding deaf audiences through the language. But, on a purely stylistic level, they are theatrical bookends, with a considerable distance in thought and delivery between them. Mamet is, well, Mamet, with prolix slang-talk and despair largely internalized, while Oates is unmistakably Oates, with feverish poetry that churns with a violence that inevitably becomes destiny for her troubled characters.

Lisa Cotie, a hearing artist who knows sign language, directed Reunion and provided one of the offstage voices for this restrained two-character look at a woman meeting her father after almost a lifetime of distance. There's no music, and the conversation is divided into a series of Polaroid takes separated by the rise and fall of the lights. As a hearing audience member, I surprised myself by having little trouble following this tale of an under-recovery alcoholic World War II vet (Gary Neall Raney, Jr.) who attempts to woo the discontented daughter (Kelli Williams Mirus) who instigates the reunion. Raney and Mirus matched the always crystalline but sometimes (deliberately) muted passion of their facial expressions with hand movements fluttering like birds eager to take flight. It occurred to me, midway through the performance, that this wasn't much different from watching a foreign movie with subtitles; just as many years of filmgoing experience have taught me that trick, so I suspect a similar training stint would move me closer to the heart of a deaf-performed play.

Ontological Proof of My Existence, directed by Kevin Grammer and signed by Gabriel Vangellis, jostles around inside both the poetic parameters of Joyce Carol Oates' bleak, lovely language and the four walls inside the abandoned building where it's set. Shelly (Laurel Whitsett) is a Midwestern girl who "smells like cornflakes and talcum" but somehow got on a bus to the city and wound up spending days at a time on a soiled mattress, waiting to service men booked by a suave pimp named Peter V. (Guin Powell). Both have reinvented themselves from a previous life they couldn't stand. Shelly's new incarnation has several names and feels disconnected from her body, and she must continually seek from Peter V. how she must think, feel, and act. Mr. V. feeds her some scraps of her stable suburban past, referring to her tricks as husbands who want "supper and a little loving." Her desperate father (Mitch Carr) shows up with a slide projector full of memories that, to Shelly as well as the audience, are blurred and just a little bit sinister.  

Laurel Whitsett and Guin Powell are both as addictive as the white pills her character is fed, but for different reasons: She is truly a good little girl used to preening and posing for attention, but when she stops thinking about the men in her life and starts thinking about herself, she plummets into a flailing panic. Powell is a quietly commanding actor I would love to see more of on Dallas stages. His chilling Peter V. cut something vital inside himself a long time ago in order to treat all his girls as one little girl; Powell's cruel charm makes Shelly's surrender of identity hauntingly believable.

Reunion and Ontological Proof of My Existence run through November 21. Call (214) 522-

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