Entertainment » Theatre

Acidental Death of An Anarchist

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Dec 4, 2017
The cast of Praxis Stage's 'Accidental Death of an Anarchist,' continuing through Dec. 17
The cast of Praxis Stage's 'Accidental Death of an Anarchist,' continuing through Dec. 17  

The program notes for the Praxis Stage production of Dario Fo's 1970 play "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" alert audience members to the fact that Fo, in the script, encouraged improvisation so as to personalize the work for the times and places when it might be performed. That's good to know, because the troupe make liberal use of that implicit permission, bringing the play -- which is set in Italy -- into our here and now.

The play is a farcical, but deadly serious, examination of power as it is exercised in fascistic states. The theme is simple: Authoritarian regimes are not about governing, they are about control. As such they easily slip from rationality into paranoia and crazy abusiveness. Anyone sane trying to survive in such an environment would be, by the norms of their society, insane. Thus "The Maniac," a character played by Alexander Castillo Nunez. He's a leaping, capering, mercurial trickster who freely admits to his many stints in mental asylums and speaks without hesitation of the crimes he's committed and wishes to commit -- including a longtime wish to impersonate a judge. Lucky Maniac: His chance arrives soon enough. But first he manages to talk, dance, and argue circles around a beleaguered police inspector named Bertozzo (Daniel Boudreau), gin up tensions between different departments of the police bureaucracy, and steal the essentials of what will become a disguise.

The Maniac's interview with Betozzo is only the prelude to what comes next; the bulk of the story takes place higher up in the police building, in a room on the fourth floor, where an "anarchist" was recently defenestrated. Or did he throw himself to his death in a suicidal leap? Or was his fall to the street below nothing more than an unfortunate accident? Reports suggest a number of different scenarios. Posing as Judge Malpiero, who is scheduled to visit the police in the course of an investigation, The Maniac alternately challenges and reassures The Chief (Michael Anderson), Inspector Pissani (Danny Mourino), and a sergeant (Alexandra Smith), all of whom were present at the time of the anarchist's demise -- and all of whom have multiple stories to tell about the incident.

A late arrival on the scene is a reporter named Feletti (Tenneh Sillah), who appears like a brief, bright glimmer of stability and solidity in a place where alternative facts whizz around the room like debris in a cyclone, the official report is apt to be endlessly re-written and adapted to suit the needs of the moment, and truth itself shifts and reshapes itself until, finally, Fo's point emerges: We have a choice of standing by and hoping for the best (a hope most likely to prove forlorn), or else we can grasp the nettle of our own fractious, bloodthirsty human nature and fight against those who use brute force and the misrule of perverted laws to oppress us.

Fo's themes -- as expounded and interpreted by Praxis to fit the Trump era -- are unremittingly bleak, despite the playwright's ability to laugh into the teeth of catastrophe. The cast prove not only game, but also well prepared to make sense of the play's absurdities and the logic-warping rationales of fascistic regimes, especially Nunez, whose Maniac is in a perpetual flux of assumed identities, but who watches from beneath his many varied masks with complete calm and self assurance.

As the Chief, Anderson is rooted in the thin soil of the state's fabrications and rationalizations; he and Mourino bounce off each other like a pair of natural comedians, though degree by degree what The Maniac's careful probing unveils is their vicious and self-serving brutality. Sillah, meantime, provides a faultless ideal of the press. Driven, fearless, and unwilling to compromise, she's also a tragic figure, swept up into a dilemma with no easy or faultless resolutions.

Boudreau, who also serves as Praxis Stage's producing artistic director, brings a bedraggled comic aspect to Bertozzo, who is ethically competent only to the extent that he is intellectually insufficient; Bertozzo, with his lack of guile, might be the play's most humane figure. Smith, as the Sergeant, also possesses some of that same energy: Her sergeant may not be blameless, but neither is he culpable in the sense of being driven by calculating malice.

Fo lays a tangle of queries at our feet, which Praxis tugs and jolts into writhing life. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? What is truth, and what is nothing more than carefully tailored fiction engineered to serve as the thinnest of veneers to offer cover and justification to those who manipulate a public that's complicit by being unwilling -- or unable -- to defend its own interests? How much of what you see during this two-hour production is Fo's own script, and how much is the actors weighing in with their own moral concerns -- and dragging us into the debate right along with them?

Praxis makes Fo's stinging critique hurt, first with rueful laughter and then with the growing horror that while our country's current descent is nothing new on the world's stage, the sheer knowledge of what we're going through -- and how such historical spasms progress, from bleak to pitch-night black before hope of a new dawn -- will neither prepare nor armor us. Such accidents of history work as though by innate design of the human animal, and the only way out is through. There are, regrettably, no shortcuts - just the sorts of hard choices that come with the territory of having shrugged off everything but the outward trappings of civilization.

Praxis Stage's production of "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" continues at First Church in Boston through Dec. 17. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.artful.ly/praxis-stage

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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