CURRENT THEATRE REVIEWS by Travis Michael Holder


Photo by Ashley Randall

Actors’ Gang Theatre

Two years ago, in one of my spirited post-performance conversations with Actors’ Gang founder/artistic director Tim Robbins after the debut of his contemporary Commedia dell’Arte-inspired Harlequino: On to Freedom at their welcoming Ivy Substation home—an epic achievement he wrote, directed, and took on tour to Europe and China where it was censored by government officials—he couldn’t stop talking about how honored he had been to have met the then recently deceased Italian Nobel-laureate playwright Dario Fo while performing the piece in Europe.

As Robbins waxed on about Fo in one of those conversations between us that traditionally seem to last through one (or two) of his ever-present Marlboros, a thought came to me. Considering Tim’s interest in the history and evolution of Commedia, the classic artform once germinated in public squares and makeshift outdoor stages over 500 years ago, as well as the Oscar-winning actor’s well-known and admirable predilection for candid outspoken political activism and possible career-damaging resistance, I thought to myself that the Gang should one day mount Fo’s 1970 internationally recognized masterpiece of both Commedia-triggered farce and boldly courageous political resistance, Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

Well, I got my wish. Although Robbins has trusted the direction of the project to longtime collaborator Will Thomas McFadden, who has been frequently represented as an actor, director, and writer in almost every production mounted by the Gang over the past 8 years, the choice to reboot Accidental Death right now as the Traitor Tot and his merry band of neo-fascists have taken over our country, is a match made in Terpsichorean heaven.

In Accidental Death, Fo created one of the most fascinating antiheroes in modern dramatic literature, a character simply called The Maniac who invades a police station interrogation room where a railway worker wrongly accused of bombing a train station had recently “accidentally” fallen out of a window. It was a scenario Fo based on a real-life incident which had occurred in Italy the year before when a suspected anarchist named Giuseppe Pinelli met the same untimely end in December, 1969.

Italy at the time was rocked by political unrest and turmoil, fueled by the rumor that many of the recent incidents of terrorism across the country were actually engineered by the fascists in power themselves in an effort to discredit leftist reformers trying to change the direction of the country. Through the play’s farcical humor and outrageously broad Commedia-esque delivery, Fo’s message, when the laughter finally subsided, was intensely political and quickly became a cause celebre in Italy, particularly after in debuted in Milan only a few hours after a demonstration to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the bombing of which Pinelli had been falsely accused.

A young university student was killed by tear gas fired by police during the gathering and the next day, 700 participants convened to protest his death. The day after, 3,000 people met and the rapidly growing number of protesters over the next few days and weeks brought the city to a screeching halt with picketing, marches, and demonstrations. And as it did, as many as 500 people were turned away each night from that first mounting of Accidental Death at the city’s Capannone di Via Colletta.

Donning various disguises and voices, the actor playing The Maniac manipulates the maladroit policemen in Fo’s satire into a Marx Brotherly burlesque of truth-inducing hysteria. Under the sturdy and assured leadership of McFadden’s wildly rule-defying pasquinade, the role proves to be a perfect fit for another stalwart Gang veteran, Bob Turton, who obviously has no filter when it comes to creating a comedic tour de force.

Physically evoking an image of Boris Karloff if he had been mentored by Buster Keaton, without a doubt Turton is a comic genius, all the while paying confident reverence to his continuing Gang workshop training—something noted in the current playing script surely added for this production, referring to The Maniac as a theatre teacher on indefinite sick leave who “studied ensemble theatre tactics from a Commedia dell’Arte background.”

McFadden’s committed supporting cast handles the silliness gamely, worshipfully bowing to the jaw-droppingly bizarre antics of Turton, although understudy Guebri VanOver, in for Lynde Houck in the pivotal role of the Police Chief originally written for a man, hasn’t quite yet gotten the rhythms and physical looseness of the others into her bones, something that will surely come with time if she continues to play the role in the huge Actors Gang sandbox with the other performers.

From the ranks and in his Actors Gang mainstage debut, associate member Tom Szymanski, in the usually thankless role of a rather nondescript police lacky that could have easily faded away in the grandness of the play’s playing style—and Margaret Cleary and Cihan Sahin’s sufficiently minimal yet overpoweringly evocative set and projection design—repeatedly steals the show with his marvelously understated deadpanned delivery.

The play itself, which has been done over the years in some 40 countries—including fascist Chile and South Africa during its apartheid years—has here been adapted into English by Jon Laskin and Michael Aquilante, but I suspect many of this production’s current references were culled from the Gang’s well-known workshopping process, including Turton’s many adlibs (“Sounds a bit Joan Crawford, doesn’t it?” he pauses the action to ask the audience) and the raucous moment when the whole cast suddenly breaks into a frenetic megaphone-wielding staging of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

Through the unstoppably satirical humor, Fo’s message is clear: “Scandal is the fertilizer of democracy,” he wrote. “It’s all distraction”—or as Turton’s Maniac notes in this adaptation of a similar scheme being used as a ploy by the Keystone cops he’s so easily manipulating, “Now there’s a Kardashian with a vibrating buttplug.”

The history of Commedia dell’Arte goes back to 16th-century Italy, where the “Comedy of Craft” was rather crudely executed by ball-scratching masked performers originally improvising storylines in the streets based on sketches and convoluted storylines centering on love while craftily criticizing the political incorrectness of the time. Presenting inept upper-class social types, blustering military officials, and politicians who didn’t have any more clue than our own brainless super-clown Celebrity Appresident, the comeuppance they traditionally receive at the hands of their far smarter and deceitfully scheming servants fueled the popularity of the artform as it flourished and also quickly began to madden members of the ruling class. “Fake news!” I can picture them all saying.

The hypocrisy of our conflicted species was soon regularly being satirized right out in the open in town squares all over Europe by roaming nomadic performers, their boldly inflammatory though whimsical political rants challenging the social strata of the times as they spewed out loud insults and bawdy sexual humor—all behind the protective shield of the goofy, cartoonlike masks that successfully hid their real identities.

Still, masks can always be removed, particularly with a Jim Carrey-facile face such as Turton’s; spies can always be sneaky; and the freedom we hold dear has always been risky for courageous political theatre participants who dared to criticize the powers-that-be—a fate some of us are beginning to worry about in the present climate of dogmatic atrocities hurled at us on a daily basis.

THROUGH MAR. 9: Actors’ Gang Theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Venice. 310.838.4264 or theactorsgang.com

NOTE: By the way, famed artist Ralph Steadman, known for his iconic images in a lifetime energized by his illustrations originally generated by his collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson, created the logo for this new mounting of Accidental Death of an Anarchist that perfectly identifies the boldness of this exceptional production and, along with some amazing artwork by Dario Fo himself, graces the lobby of the Actors’ Gang space in an exhibition on view throughout the run. As usual, nobody does it better or classier than Tim Robbins and his unstoppably prolific theatre company.