Dario Fo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Italian playwright/activist/director, born in 1926. Fo’s works are characterized primarily by criticisms of—among other things—organized crime, political corruption, political murders, Catholic policy on abortion and conflict in the Middle East. His plays often depend on improvisation, Commedia dell’Arte style. He freely gives companies producing his works permission to modify them to reflect local political issues and other current events. West Philly’s Curio Theatre Company has chosen Fo’s ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST for their winter production—and added a little current flavor while still keeping it set at the time of the events depicted. (Yes—Occupy Philadelphia takes some licks.)
Written in 1970, ANARCHIST is Fo’s most widely produced work. The play is a farce, loosely based on actual events involving an Italian citizen named Giuseppe Pinelli. A low level railway worker and professed anarchist, Pinelli was in custody at the Milan police station in 1969, under suspicion of bombing a bank (the Piazza Fontana bombing). After being interrogated for over 12 hours, Pinelli fell—or was thrown—from a fourth floor window and died in the street below. The actual details of the event have never been cleared up, and the police officers involved were only nominally punished. Eventually, Pinelli’s name was cleared of all involvement with the bombing.
Fo used Pinelli’s death as inspiration for his riff on police corruption. The play opens with the mid-level Inspector Bertozzo interrogating a character identified solely as “The Maniac” (an over-the-top, histrionic piece of work if ever there was one) on the first floor of the police station. The Maniac, however, constantly outsmarts the dim-witted Bertozzo; and when Bertozzo leaves the room, this ne’er-do-well intercepts a phone call from his immediate superior, Inspector Pissani. The phone call lets the Maniac know that a judge is due at the police station to investigate the interrogation and death of the anarchist. The Maniac decides to impersonate the judge, and successfully does so. He gets the police to re-enact the events, in the actual fourth floor room. When a woman journalist comes to the station to probe the events—and write an expose, of course—the Maniac seems to help the police invent a story to tell her.
Director M. Craig Getting has paced the evening well, allowing his cast leeway, yet keeping things moving. The company appears to be having a blast with the freedoms Fo allows actors. There is a great deal of direct address to the audience, and on opening night one audience member felt that meant she was free to interject throughout the evening. Eric Scotolati (as the Maniac) took the most hits—but handled her brilliantly. Scotolati is a non-stop whirlwind of physicality and verbal gymnastics—I was exhausted watching him. His whole performance was nicely calibrated, riding the roller coaster of the character’s moods smoothly.
Liam Castellan gives a finely-tuned turn as Bertozzo, bringing us a pompous public official who is pompously full of himself. Of course, he is slowly outwitted by The Maniac and descends into blithering frustration. Castellan nicely channels a bit of Herbert Lom from the old Pink Panther films—his meltdown in Act II is a hoot. A solid physical comic, Harry Slack pulls double duty as two constables—one with mustache, one without. Slack perfectly embodies the role of flunky; his facial expressions and reactions are fun to watch.
Next step up the chain of corruption, we have CJ Keller as Pissani and Leonard Kelly as the Superintendant. The two play off each other perfectly, delivering strong performances of Fo’s conniving characters. Keller has been a chameleon in each of the three Curio shows I’ve seen him in, always surprising me with his range. Kelly is a seasoned performer who has graced several Philly stages, it’s nice to see him lending his talents to Curio. Rounding out the ensemble is Rachel Gluck as the reporter, Miss Faletti. (Is it just me, or is that name uber suggestive?) Ms. Gluck is spot-on as the crusading journalist looking to expose the nefarious deeds of the police. She even brings a touch of sexpot to the game to get her answers. And in one of the direct address moments, asks why there’s only one woman in the play.
As always, Curio’s tech team has hit a home run—accomplishing much with little. Paul Kuhn’s dingy office set elicits just the right mood, with the appropriate 60s filing cabinets and oscillating fan for good measure. The content descriptions on the assorted file boxes are a wonderfully funny touch. Aetna Gallagher has assembled just the right costumes to take us back to the late 1960s, and the disguises that Scotolati’s character pulls out of his bag of tricks are hilarious. (I don’t care what the annoying audience lady said.) Some great fight choreography was created by Brian McCann. Curio is excellent at physical work. Add Jared Reed’s wonderfully subtle lighting and sound, and you have the perfect support to bring Curio’s production to life.
While ANARCHIST isn’t exactly typical holiday season fare, it is a funny respite from the madness at the mall.
ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST
by Dario Fo
Adapted by Gavin Richards
Translated by Gillian Hanna
Directed by M. Craig Getting
December 7, 2011 – January 7, 2012
Curio Theatre Company
4740 Baltimore Avenue
Philadelphia, Pa 19143
For tickets call 215-525-1350