The Italian Job

Playing a character named The Maniac, actor Robert Dorfman calmly announces to the audience at Dallas Theater Center that he will serve as the "tour guide" through the zigs and zags of Dario Fo's political satire Accidental Death of an Anarchist. That's an understatement. Moments after the lights go up on this wild two-act bus ride, Dorfman grabs the wheel and expertly navigates harrowing hairpin twists and turns of plot, with some deft detours into brilliant physical comedy shtick. It's not a tour; it's a tour de force.

The play is a doozy, based on a true and notorious case in Italy. In 1969, after an autumn of terrorist bombings in Italy by factions of the Left and the Right, a Milanese worker, Pino Pinelli, was arrested and falsely accused of being a bomb-tossing anarchist. After many hours of interrogation and possible torture in police custody, Pinelli "fell" out of a fourth-story window in the police station. Subsequent investigations would find that the cops probably pushed or tossed Pinelli. It would take a decade of trials and government shake-ups for the real truth to come out: that Pinelli was murdered and that agents of the Italian secret police had been responsible for some of the bombings as a way of keeping the public in a heightened state of fear and thus easier to manipulate.

Verrrrry interesting, as Artie Johnson used to growl on Laugh-In. And verrrrry unlike Dallas Theater Center to edge so close to offending the elite upper slice of the bourgeoisie that feeds it. Staging something this anti-establishment seems wholly out of character for safe-as-houses DTC, which makes it all that much more fun to be part of. Do the Botox-numbed social X-rays out for a night of theatuh on Turtle Creek realize they're laughing along to radical agitprop? Talk about shock and awe.

When it debuted in 1970, Anarchist shocked the Italian government to its core. The play was so controversial that Fo and his actors were subject to police harassment. Theaters received bomb threats. The play was banned all over Italy but became a long-running hit in London's West End, where it was successfully revived just last year. It has been translated into dozens of languages and performed all over the globe. Fo, master of political comedy and author of 70 plays, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997.

Like the films of Chaplin and the Marx brothers, Accidental Death of an Anarchist uses light comedy to make a heavy statement about government corruption and deceit. To mess with the policemen who've been hassling him, The Maniac, a mental patient afflicted with "actor's disease," impersonates the judge conducting the official inquiry into the Pinelli case. The cops, as bumbling a squad as the Barney Miller gang, play right into The Maniac's verbal traps, eventually admitting their complicity in Pinelli's death. "We were just having some fun with him,'' says the Commissioner (Jerry Russell), excusing his treatment of Pinelli. "Oh?'' taunts The Maniac/Judge. "Were you wearing red noses and throwing cream pies?'' The Maniac acts as the agent of truth, Woodward and Bernstein in one man dressed up as Rufus T. Firefly.

The test of any play's greatness, particularly one so grounded in particular events in time, is its ability to remain relevant. Anarchist certainly does that. Allowing for updates, the script stays fluid. In the translation by Ron Jenkins that DTC is using (with revisions credited to Gloria Pastorino), there are jokes and asides about the Supreme Court and the 2000 election, the terrorists of 9-11, the political ascent of Arnold Schwarzenegger and recent missteps by the Catholic Church. When The Maniac tells an investigative reporter (Mary Bacon) that "scandals should be invented even when there aren't any, because it keeps the leaders in power," the name Monica Lewinsky shuffles forward on the mental Rolodex.

DTC's Anarchist blazes with talent (under the direction of Richard Hamburger). Dorfman amazes as the methodical madman, crouching, spinning, flying around Leiko Fuseya's red and green cop-shop set like a ferret on ephedrine. But he doesn't force the comedy; he relaxes into it, seeming somehow to be shambling and loose even as he spouts long bursts of dialogue at warp speed. Besides impersonating a judge, Dorfman's Maniac also portrays a one-eyed, one-legged government official, as funny a turn as Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove. Dorfman is such an accomplished physical comedian, his would be a performance worth studying with the sound turned down.

At a preview performance the cast delivered good work all around, especially Jerry Russell as the slimy commissioner and Sean Runnette as Inspector Bertozzo, the only policeman who knows The Maniac's true identity. Skinny and about 9 feet tall, Runnette is a natural clown. Craig Bockhorn has some fine moments, too, as the bald-as-Kojak deputy police chief. Costume designer Linda Cho dresses them all in gaudy '70s polyester, adding to the visual silliness.

Comedy, according to Dario Fo, can be an incentive to political action, a weapon against the falsehoods and bloated platitudes of the high and mighty. (Hello, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show.) It's scary how true the messages in Anarchist still are 30 years after it was written. Good on ya, DTC, for having the testicoli to engage in a little theatrical anarchy in this era of the Patriot Act and the bogus orange alert. Mo' Fo!

Unseen: A Collective Premier (their spelling), now playing at the Bath House Cultural Center, could be subtitled Insecure Women and the Men Who Abuse Them. In 10 short playlets, GoodDoctor Productions offers a pack of preachy little dramas that portray women as weak, self-hating victims and men as violent, sex-obsessed animals whose brains are caught in their zippers.

Written mostly by a group of graduates of Texas A&M-Commerce, the plays in Unseen should remain just that. Time After Time by Mike Klongpayabal presents a series of vignettes that show a troubled couple on their first date, on the night he proposes, on their fifth anniversary and then the night they break up. Clichés abound. I Shadow by Elizabeth Klongpayabal finds two young women primping in a restaurant bathroom, comparing dates and sizing up their chances. The prettier of the two (Meredith Morton) deflates her friend (K.B. Stewart) with criticisms, intentionally deep-sixing the other girl's confidence. Then Miss Know-It-All ducks into a stall to toss her dinner. Ah, the opening scene of a Lifetime Movie for Women.

Two of the plays pair characters with the personifications of their smack-talking inner voices, like living, breathing word balloons. Double dumb. Blind Faith by Leigh Wesley is a depressing Sunday-school skit about a woman's date-rape experience, complete with slides of satanic flames. Melissa Heath Lee's A Woman's Place depicts a bride being raped by her husband-to-be as her maid of honor looks on. That's a lot of fun. Following that is the goofy Dog Days, a rip-off of A.R. Gurney's Sylvia, which casts humans as talking dogs arf-arfing around with their master and mistress.

Besides the antediluvian attitudes toward gender roles, the plays in Unseen offer no writerly craftsmanship, no poetry, no humor, no anything. Of the four actors, only Meredith Morton appears to have a clue what should and shouldn't be done on a stage. The other three--Stewart, Lucas Roeschley, Dustin Sautter--are so wooden and dry, they should stand nearer the fire exits.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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