Ethan Corn and Bob Turton in Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist at the Actors Gang Theatre. (Photo by Ashley Randall)
Ethan Corn and Bob Turton in Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist at the Actors Gang Theatre. (Photo by Ashley Randall)

Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Reviewed by Deborah Klugman 
Actors’ Gang 
Through March 9


Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist premiered in Milan on December 5, 1970. Fo wrote this incendiary farce in response to the suspicious death a year earlier of an Italian railway worker in police custody — an anarchist named Pinelli under interrogation for his role in a bombing that he did not commit, nor have anything to do with. The incident took place at a time of profound political unrest in Italy, with a spate of terrorist bombings carried out by fascist elements with an eye towards blaming communist and other left-wing sympathizers and discrediting them in the eyes of the public.

In his play, the Nobel Prize–winning Fo used the death of an innocent man to underscore a variety of social iniquities: police brutality, bureaucratic corruption, hypocrisy among the press, oppression of the vulnerable poor, the list goes on. Beyond politics, he weighed in on that perennial enigma that has so fascinated writers and artists for millennia: In a lunatic world, who among us is sane and who is mad? And in the machinations of his flap-jawed central character, Fo illustrated how language is employed both to extort — and distort — the truth, sometimes concurrently.

No great insight is required to perceive how the abuses illustrated in Accidental Death of an Anarchistcan be applied to our own Trump-mangled republic. A visionary artist and dedicated revolutionary, Fo understood the universal scope of his satire, and liberally granted permission to companies and directors to modify his work, to allow their staging to reflect its contemporary time and place.

Perhaps no company better complements Fo’s sensibility than the Actors’ Gang, known for its ebullient commedia dell’arte renderings and commitment to social change. Directed by Will Thomas McFadden, this production features Bob Turton as the purposeful Madman who turns the tables on a group of interrogators to expose them for the fools and villains they are. In a play that soars or sinks on the strength of the lead, Turton turns in a crackerjack comic performance, while McFadden’s direction, relative to the Actors’ Gang predilection for broad and boisterous shenanigans, is accomplished with skill and relative restraint.

The story opens with the Madman (Turton) an expert imposter and master of doublespeak, climbing through the window into the office of Police Captain Bertozzo (Ethan Corn). When apprehended, he first presents himself as a babbling, mentally disabled nutcase — insulting his interrogators, while reminding them that, given his history as a mental patient, and the laws protecting such individuals, they manhandle him at their peril. After the seething but outwitted officers exit the room, the Madman rifles through records and steals the folder that pertains to the incident involving the supposedly suicidal anarchist. (According to the official report, the suspect had been seized by “raptus” and had suddenly leaped, without provocation, from a fourth story window.)

In a few moments, the Madman has changed costume to devise the persona of a government inspector and relocated to the office of the officials directly involved in the suspicious death. Sowing discord among his buffoonish authoritarian hosts, he begins asking pointed questions and instilling his targets with growing anxiety as they anticipate their exposure for the murder of an innocent. By the end of Act 1, this miserably disquiet group of cops have ceded him total control of the situation and of themselves. (Act 2 opens with their hilariously ironical group rendering of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” — a ludicrous effort, under the Madman’s direction, to refashion their public image to a likable one.)

From the moment he steps on stage, Turton’s manic subversive is in brilliant command as, twitches and all, he bends his nemeses to his will. Both Adam J. Jefferis as the dissembling police captain, who’d been present when the interrogatee met his untimely end, and Corn as a second fatuous officer who falls victim to the Madman’s wiles, make for flawless foils. As a thick-headed deputy and all-purpose lackey, Tom Syzmanski has few lines, but his non-verbal reactions display true comic timing, and he purloins many a moment for his own.

Cross-gender cast as the Police Superintendent, Guebri VanOver tries but fails to capture the bovine mentality and menacing confidence of her male underlings. Julia Finch as an inquiring journalist invests too little of herself in her character.

The most striking element of the staging is projection designer Cihan Sahin’s cartoon facsimile of a human figure plunging from on high to his death, an image projected multiple times on the walls of this high-ceilinged venue. It’s a telling summation of the playwright’s message, which is the price we pay when villainy seizes power.

The Actors’ Gang Theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Mar. 9; or (310) 838-4264. Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.