In Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Nobel Prize-winning Italian playwright Dario Fo brilliantly transforms a notorious real-life case of police brutality into an epic farce. By fearlessly speculating about what really happened before and after an anarchist railway worker, under police interrogation, “accidentally fell” to his death through the fourth-floor window of police headquarters in Milan, Fo savagely skewers official corruption in Italy and the local news media’s curious lack of curiosity in investigating such obvious outrages as the murder of political dissents while in police custody. Indeed, Fo gleefully targets governmental corruption — and journalistic complicity in covering it up — wherever and whenever it occurs.
Burning Coal Theatre Company’s 2004-05 season-ender, running Thursday-Sunday now through May 22nd at the Leggett Theatre at Peace College, is the American professional premiere of British playwright Simon Nye’s acerbic 2003 translation and adaptation of Dario Fo’s classic 1970 farce, reset in the present in Raleigh, NC. Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis heightens the show’s hilarity by inserting contemporary topical references to President Bush, various Tar Heel institutions, The News & Observer, etc., thus making the play’s satirical jabs at governmental and journalistic abuses sting even more.
To make this delicious comic soufflé even more delectable for contemporary Triangle audiences, Davis has cast the remarkably gifted New York comic actor Philip Mutz as The Maniac, an inveterate troublemaker whom the police have already arrested 11 times and are currently seeking to bring in for questioning. Living up to his nickname, The Maniac boldly climbs up the outside of the police-headquarters building — a la Spiderman — and invades the inner sanctum of the police, carrying a duffel bag full of disguises and initially claiming to be a district judge assigned to investigate the accidental death of the anarchist prisoner whom police claim fell out a window while undergoing the third degree at the hands of some of Raleigh’s finest.
Mutz is an absolute eye-rolling delight as the wild-and-crazy straw that stirs this comic drink (to mix a metaphor). He exploits to the max The Maniac’s cockeyed worldview and his perverse penchant for impersonating a district judge and other authority figures involved in the investigation. Meanwhile, his impertinent interrogation of police officials helps peel back layer after layer of the onion of deception, while it drive the subjects of his questions into a frenzy.
George Jack is highly amusing as Bertozzo, a roly-poly hard-boiled detective with a special fondness for roughing up prisoners — especially left-wing agitators, whom he particularly despises. (Bertozzo is one of the chief suspects in the anarchist’s death.)
Martin Thompson is hilarious as the buck-passing Chief of Police. He claims that he saw nothing and will admit nothing, except that he left the scene immediately before any unfortunate turn of events that The Maniac uncovers.
Kevin Ferguson gives a crowd-pleasing performance as a Detective who likes to get physical with recalcitrant subjects; and Ian Finley is a hoot as a series of obsequious bootlicking Police Officers, ready and oh so willing to provide an alibi for any fellow officer accused of misconduct.
Although she appears only in the second act, Lynne Marie Guglielmi makes an indelible impression as The Journalist — rechristened Marla Miffed here — who is chic and sexy, but ultimately clueless to what is really going on behind closed doors when the police are beating confessions out of suspects.
Scenic designer Robert John Andrusko has created a fine playing area that allows for lots and lots of monkey business, lighting designer Christopher Popowich expertly illuminates the comic hijinks, and costume designer Carson Mather expertly outfits the cast for fun.
With its left-wing bent and frequent goring of right-wing sacred cows, Accidental Death of an Anarchist may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But broad-minded theatergoers will find this provocative play highly entertaining, even as they soberly reassess the unhealthy ties between public officials and the journalists who cover them.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Accidental Death of an Anarchist Thursday-Friday, May 12-13, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 14, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 15, at 2 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, May 19-21, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 22, at 2 p.m. in Leggett Theatre, Peace College, 15 E. Peace St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($13 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel), except pay-what-you-can performance May 8th. 919/834-4001 or http://www.burningcoal.org/Tickets%20for%20ADOAA.htm [inactive 8/07]. Note: There will be a $50-per-person fundraiser with heavy hors d’oeuvres, wine and beer, and a performance, starting at 6 p.m., on May 14th. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/. Guardian Unlimited (Simon Nye’s 2003 preview): http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/story/0,11710,898320,00.html.
Burning Coal Theatre Company will conclude its 2004-05 season with the American professional premiere of British playwright Simon Nye’s cheeky new translation and adaptation of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a classic 1970 farce by Italian playwright Dario Fo, May 5-22 in Leggett Theatre at Peace College in Raleigh, NC. Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis will stage this acerbic comedy about real-life police brutality against political dissidents and news media connivance in the coverup.
In previewing the show’s 2003 opening at the Donmar Warehouse in London, Simon Nye wrote in The Guardian: “Fo, now in his 70s, has no real equivalent in this country. As a performer, he might be Tommy Cooper after attending a summer school in commedia del’arte. As a playwright, think David Hare after a prolonged course of amphetamines. He won the [Nobel Prize in Literature] in 1997 — a useful gong, not only if you want to get into Stockholm’s best restaurants at short notice, but also to subdue critics who regard essentially comic playwrights, even angry ones, as a bit lightweight. But in 1970, when Fo wrote Accidental Death as an enraged response to the fall of an anarchist railway worker from the fourth-floor window of Milan’s police headquarters, many were surprised that the play found an audience outside Italy.”
Burning Coal Jerome Davis says, “I read [Accidental Death of an Anarchist] as a much younger man and have been intrigued by its mixture of high (low?) comedy and political ideas for years.”
He adds, “I love the mix of comedy and politics. It is a true farce, a rip-roaring, door-slamming, slip-on-the-banana-peel farce, but imbedded in it are these very interesting thoughts about democracy and the political processes.”
In thumbnailing the plot, Davis says, “This play is a farce about an escapee from a mental institution, ‘the Maniac’ [recent New York University MFA graduate Phillip Mutz] who wanders into a police station and proceeds to wreak havoc on the hapless officers. The other officers [Burning Coal youth education director Ian Finley, St. Augustine’s College drama instructor George Jack, and Burning Coal newcomer Kevin Ferguson] have recently been suspected of throwing a prisoner out of the fourth floor window. The Maniac convinces them that he is a judge sent by the court to decide whether the case should be re-opened. To add to the confusion, a Journalist [Burning Coal veteran Lynne Marie Guglielmi] shows up, wanting to open her own investigation into the accidental death of the anarchist.”
In addition to director Jerome Davis, the show’s production team includes assistant director Becca Johnson, musical director Julie Florin, scenic designer Robert John Andrusko, lighting designer Christopher Popowich, costume designer Carson Mather, props mistress Robin Hughes, and sound designer Jeremy Allen.
Davis says the show is set at Raleigh police headquarters; its lighting is “bright (farce has to be)”; and its costumes are “pretty run-of-the-mill police detective-wear, except for one incredible exception, which I won’t reveal.”
Jerome Davis says the principal challenge in staging this farce is timing. “The play is not unlike a Marx Brothers or even Three Stooges skit,” claims Davis, “only extended over two hours. The problem of the play is keeping the farce at the appropriate pace AND nailing the underlying political themes. That’s kind of like juggling six balls at once while delivering the ‘To be or not to be speech....’ two completely different things required simultaneously. The good news is, we have a great cast for it, a great design team, and the audience will be laughing a lot, be hope!”
Davis adds, “Dario Fo won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997, which caused quite a stir. He has perpetually made himself a thorn in the side of the establishment, wherever that establishment presented itself. He is a clown, a professional nay-sayer, an artist, and a buffoon. He is one of the great comic minds of the 20th century; and his work needs to be done everywhere, especially right now.”
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Accidental Death of an Anarchist Thursday-Saturday, May 5-7, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 8, at 2 p.m.; Thursday-Friday, May 12-13, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 14, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 15, at 2 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, May 19-21, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 22, at 2 p.m. in Leggett Theatre, Peace College, 15 E. Peace St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($13 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel), except pay-what-you-can performance May 8th. 919/834-4001 or http://www.burningcoal.org/Tickets%20for%20ADOAA.htm [inactive 8/07]. Note 1: There will be an audio-described performance on May 7th. Note 2: There will be a $50-per-person fundraiser with heavy hors d’oeuvres, wine and beer, and a performance, starting at 6 p.m. May 14th. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/. Guardian Unlimited (Simon Nye’s 2003 preview): http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/story/0,11710,898320,00.html.