As noxiously ridiculous as he was, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi didn't invent absurd politics in Italy. Rather, the tradition goes back at least as far as 16th-century commedia dell'arte. That populist theatrical tradition, rich in clowning and stock characters, also underlies Dario Fo's political lampoon Accidental Death of an Anarchist. His 1970 farce is based on a prior incident in which the suspect in a bank bombing either jumped/fell/was pushed to his death at police headquarters. For Fo, a committed leftist, the case provided a perfect opportunity to assail government corruption and lies. Thirty-five years later, when Strawberry Theatre Workshop first tackled this show, you could see the parallels: Americans began to question the evidence behind our invasion of Iraq, learned about torture in Abu Ghraib, and bristled at Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld rationalizations.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist Erickson Theatre Off Broadway, 1524 Harvard Ave., 800-838-3006, strawshop.org. $15â€“$30. 8 p.m. Thurs.â€“Sun. Ends Aug. 4.
So why restage Anarchist now, after a seven-year gap? In its manifesto, Strawshop alludes to Occupy Wall Street and the federal investigation into our police department's excessive use of force. And in fact, Fo has always encouraged such topical embellishments and ad-libs to Anarchist's script (for which reason it's his best-known play, often revived to critique political regimes). Again directed by Gabriel Baron, this terrific production reminds us that we can never run out of reasons to be skeptical of authority. And in addition to the police, its list of targets is here expanded to banks, Mubarak-like despots, and corporate ownership of the Internet.
The story spins out like a multi-ring circus on a set featuring a 12-foot cliff of precariously tiered file cabinets that looks ready to avalanche. Lithe, crazed-looking Ryan Higgins' main character, "The Maniac," spends the better part of two hours posing as a handful of lofty personages (judge, professor, forensics expert), each supposedly qualified to "investigate" the suspect's jump/fall/push from the window while steadily driving the precinct staff crazy. Little gestures like leaping over his own suitcase skateboard-style with a sideways kick of his heels endear him early, and make the threat of his exposure as a fraud unbearable. It's a promising recipe for hilarity, but the proof is in the panna cotta.
Some of Seattle's best clowns have been cast in the principal roles, including Jason Harber as the lowliest of the officers. He uses his droopy jaw, salacious gums, and bulging eyes to prodigious effect. His cop is so titillated by the prospect of physical contact with anyone—anyone!—that this grotesquely pathetic character always draws your eye, even amid chaos. Then there's bigger clowny stuff: When the police superintendent (MJ Sieber) snorts cocaine, it's not lines but a quarter-cup heap, much of which sticks to his nose for the rest of the scene.
But some of the deftest material occurs when several characters enter a lazzo (rough translation: group shtick)—a prefigured bit of comic choreography that gets triggered, often repeatedly. In this production, that could mean a character ducking a long series of punches or chasing a moving chair with his butt in an attempt to sit, or three characters flinging around an object hot-potato-style. Tim Hyland and Galen Joseph Osier, as Inspectors Pissani and Bertozzo, respectively, round out the lazzisti. The Maniac's many costume changes are also a big part of the fun, as he digs into his trunk, emerging with wigs, dysfunctional prostheses, and a mustache that seems not so much to sprout from his upper lip as to swing from the tip of his nose. While watching one of these wardrobe shifts, I failed to notice how another character wound up hooded, bound, and tied to a chair right in front of me (the five-ring circus effect).
The late-breaking entrance of Rhonda J. Soikowski as the journalist Feletti forces a final reorganization of the material into two possible endings—different, but equally macabre. Ever the opponent of the status quo, Fo makes Anarchist both depressing and hilarious, an always-timely satire that the Strawshop ensemble juggles wonderfully well. I doubt even Berlusconi at his bunga-bunga parties was so well entertained.