A bomb goes off in a railway station. A suspect, a young man, is brought into police headquarters for questioning. The police use aggressive psychological tactics to coerce the man to confess but are unsuccessful. Suddenly, the suspect falls out of a fourth floor window to his death. Was he pushed? Did he jump? Or was, as the police aver, the fall an accident? And do their evasive accounts warrant further investigation?
Sounds like something you'd see on Law and Order, right? Well, it's the scenario of the scathing political farce by Dario Fo, the most famous Italian playwright you've never heard of (even if he did win a Nobel Prize in 1997), Accidental Death of an Anarchist, now being fiercely and hilariously performed by The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. It's a farce unlike the romantic farces of the French stage and the farces that make fun of "dim" and eccentric nobles so beloved by the Brits, and while it does not have farce's requisite slamming doors and mistaken identities, there is plenty of witty dialogue, political institutions to skewer and astute judgments and pronouncements made by a person who appears to be a buffoon. Above: Kevin Isola impersonates a police inspector. Photo: ©Gerry Goodstein
In fact, the play's premise was "ripped from the headlines"—the Milan, Italy, headlines of 1970, during the "Hot Autumn," when Italy's youth and workers conducted a massive series of strikes and protests against their professors, the church, their employers and the government. Needless to say, the police cracked down with violence, and neo-fascist groups, secretly armed by the police, committed terroristic acts to undermine the protests and strengthen the right-wing party.
Fo's witty, caustic satire is served well by Paul Mullin's inspired direction and the awe-inspiring clowning of Kevin Isola in the many roles portrayed by a character called the Maniac, ably aided and abetted by a quintet of seasoned STNJ veterans.
Instead of writing a police procedural/investigative drama, Fo has devised a "play within a play," a major piece of dramatic irony, for we know that the Maniac is a "histrionomaniac" (a person who dreams up characters and then acts them out), a certified lunatic who has been in 16 different "nut houses" (his words) and arrested 12 times, and not the First Counsel to the Court who has come from Rome to look into the "accidental" death of an anarchist, thus instilling fear in the policemen involved in the original case. Just watching this madman craftily intimidate the cops—he gets them to sing, with gusto, an anarchist anthem and forces them to re-enact the interrogation—makes one wonder who's sane and who's not. Does he uncover the truth about the anarchist's death? Well, I'll leave you to deliciously find out for yourself. Above: (center) Kevin Isola as the Maniac is interrogated by Inspector Bertozzo, played by Philip Goodwin (left) and the Constable, played by Jeffrey M. Bender (right). Photo: ©Gerry Goodstein
The veritable embodiment of Fo's declaration that "comedy is a form of madness," the aforementioned Kevin Isola is a master of physical comedy. Using his entire body, he skewers judges/authority in general and, when he's putting one over on the policemen, turns and smiles at us knowingly before resuming a serious mien when facing them. Impersonating a police captain, he engages in a hilarious bit of slapstick with a wooden hand and glass eye. The quartet of policemen, his nemeses, are appropriate dupes to the Maniac's wiliness. Philip Goodwin as Inspector Bertozzo almost gets rid of the Maniac in the opening scene of the play, only to get punched in the head by Andrew Weems (the Inspector in the Sports Jacket) who thinks Bertozzo has given him a raspberry during a phone conversation. Edmond Genest's Superintendent tries desperately to hang on to some semblance of order, but his resolve slips and he splutters as he twists in the wind of the Maniac's investigation. As determined journalist Maria Feletti, Kristie Dale Sanders wanders into this asylum to ask questions that help uncover the authorities' complicity in the anarchist's death, only to have her head spin in the Maniac's wake. Jeffrey Bender is fine as a rather doofus-y pair of Constables. Above: Kevin Isola as the Maniac creates havoc at the Central Police Headquarters in Milan, Italy. (Left) Jeffrey Bender and (center) Andrew Weems. Photo: ©Gerry Goodstein
Michael Schweikardt's set aptly conveys the drab bureaucratic police offices so ubiquitous to crime dramas; Shelly Sabel's lighting gives a sense of time passing. Jacqueline Firkins' costumes are appropriate to the period and the characters' statuses, and Rich Dionne's sound places the action squarely in the center of the city; we can hear the traffic on the streets below.
Police corruption. Political scandals. They've been much in the news lately, and the 24/7 cable news' penchant for covering—sometimes almost manufacturing— all sorts of scandals here and abroad serves up a delicious meal of schaudenfreude to make us forget our own troubles, personal and national. Indeed, that's one of the main points of Dario Fo's side-splitting, wry political farce. According to the Maniac, scandal is "the fertilizer of Western democracy," the best antidote to distract the people when they realize what's really going on. And the tour de force production onstage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, while introducing the public to a little-known (in the United States) playwright, reminds us that no one country has a lock on corruption and scandal and people are pretty much the same everywhere. As the Maniac says, he "may be mad, but not stupid."
Accidental Death of an Anarchist will be performed Tuesdays - Sundays through August 28 at the Theatre's Main Stage, 36 Madison Avenue, in Madison (on the campus of Drew University). For performance times, information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit online at www.ShakespeareNJ.org