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This Time, It’s No Accident

by Chris Arnott | Dec 10, 2013 12:38 pm

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Posted to: Arts & Culture, Theater

Before, I didn’t get it. Now there’s something to get.

A world-famous, Nobel-winning radical buffoon (in the best sense) who has mastered a centuries-old tradition of socially conscious clowning has been newly interpreted by a team who have pursued a particularly modernized form of classical European comedy at Yale for years.

Director Christopher Bayes and actor Steven Epp are officially a known quantity at the Yale Rep. Epp’s been appearing in shows there since the early ‘90s, when his old company, the Minnesota-based Theatre de la Jeune Lune, visited with their opulent productions of Children of Paradise—Shooting a Dream and The Green Bird. Bayes teaches at the Yale School of Drama, specializing in physical comedy.

In 2009, Bayes and Epp created a frantic, fast-paced version of Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 commedia dell’arte classic The Servant of Two Masters. That show, with largely the same cast, played four other theaters after the Rep, logging a cumulative 175 performances. In 2013, Bayes and Epp remodeled Moliere’s 1666 comedy A Doctor in Spite of Himself in a manner similar to what they’d wrought with Servant of Two Masters—a bright burst of contrived chaos in which the quantity of humor mattered more than the quality of it.

I stood apart from the critics who raved about Servant and Doctor, and especially sneered at those who saw them as true to the original spirit of those plays. I could appreciate the skill and the timing and the colorfulness and the snazzy lighting effects. But the team’s anything-for-a-laugh attitude seemed to undercut the chosen material. They did away with straight men and coherent plot lines and romantic subplots and other structural necessities of these plays. Instead of extolling the greatness of these deservedly classic comedies, these productions seemed to distrust and betray them. They also reduced the plays to a series of barely related one-liners, including long digressions from what the original playwrights intended. We’re not talking prolonged style-parody here. We’re talking superficial sketch-comedy shake-ups a la Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. If a joke didn’t register, you waited a second and the next one might. But that’s all these shows were—empty jokes, all the more painful since they were being launched off the smothered corpses of perfectly good plays.

There are literal Laugh-In references (“Sock it to me!” “Here come da judge!”), and other wheezy old gags, in Bayes & Epp’s latest comic assault at the Rep, but this time they’ve got a script that’s ready-made for their frantic, impatient, constantly-self-interrupting and outrageously over-the-top style.

Rather than continue backwards chronologically, into the 16th or 15th centuries, Bayes & Epp have accessed a 1970 revolutionary masterpiece by Dario Fo, Accidental Death of an Anarchist. The brilliance of Fo’s script is that he takes a horrific real-life moment of egregious police brutality—the days-long interrogation of a suspect in a public bombing, which ended with the beleaguered man falling to the death out of a fourth floor window—and realizes that the sheer absurdity of the situation is on par with the greatest commedia dell’arte scenarios of antiquity.

JOAN MARCUS PHOTO Fo doesn’t do anything as foolish as try to make the fatal inquisition itself funny. He shows us the aftermath, where the Italian police are trying to cover their tracks and explain away the scandal with lies upon lies upon lies. They conspire incompetently. They make ridiculous assumptions. They bang their heads against the walls. They nearly fall out the window themselves.

The lawkeepers’ ineptitude is revealed, then further encouraged, by a Bugs Bunny-like comic shapeshifter played by Epp and listed in the program simply as “Maniac.” This Maniac speaks truth to power, and also kicks power in the ass. He exposes the corrupt, greedy and insensitive for who they are, then gets them to join him in doo-wop harmonies.

JOAN MARCUS PHOTO The six-person cast, not to mention the two musicians (including the versatile Nathan Roberts, well remembered from the Yale Summer Cabaret seasons of 2008-2010 and his nimble onstage sound-effects tinkering for Eric Ting’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life at the Long Wharf) run just as amok as the actors were allowed to in Servant of Two Masters and Doctor in Spite of Himself. But this time, they’re not leaving the play behind. The spirit of Dario Fo is with them all the way. As an actor and as a playwright, Fo builds improvisational opportunities into all his works. He also updates his scripts regularly—in this case, he acknowledges the numerous trials and mistrials which followed the killing that inspired this farce. Naturally, Steven Epp feels free to go off on a tirade that includes a litany of present-day governmental atrocities and travesties, from G.W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” posturing to NSA wiretapping to right-wing obstructionism. Others in the cast gingerly interject that Epp is adding his own opinions to a play that’s over 40 years old. But his voluminous, hilarious, vituperation, as well as the constant fourth-wall breaking reassurances that these are actors and we’re watching a play, fit perfectly with Dario Fo’s ripped-from-headlines scriptwriting style.

The Yale Rep’s had a longtime fetish for Fo, spanning several regimes. When Lloyd Richards was artistic director of the theater, the Rep did Fo’s About Face in 1983, hosted the first U.S. of Fo and his wife Franca Rame in 1986, and presented Almost by Chance a Woman: Elizabeth (starring Joe Morton) in 1987. After Stan Wojewodski became dean, there was an ambitious Yale School of Drama production of Fo’s The Pope and the Witch in 1996. The Rep artistic director you’d think would have been most likely to stage Fo, Robert Brustein (who founded and ran the Rep from 1966 to 1978) didn’t do any in New Haven. But Brustein held the Fo banner high at his next theater, the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, where Fo was hired to direct the U.S. premiere of his Archangels Don’t Play Pinball and where Marisa Tomei co-starred in We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!

Elsewhere in this city, a politicized Long Wharf Theatre did its own We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay! (which begins with a socialist uprising at a supermarket) in 2008, an election year which also saw the Long Wharf do Gip Hoppe’s caustic government satire A New War. A community-based troupe led by Roy Trejo did Accidental Death of an Anarchist in the mid-‘90s at BAR.

I saw every one of the Fo shows mentioned above, as well as half a dozen small-theater productions of his plays in Boston and Fo’s most recent live appearance in Connecticut, at Wesleyan University in 2000. Wesleyan is where Ron Jenkins teaches; Jenkins has published several books on Fo, translated many of his plays and served as onstage translator during Fo’s 1986 tour.

So Connecticut has been exposed to Dario Fo in a way few other areas of the world can boast. A revival of his best-known play at the Rep comes with a bit of baggage. Christopher Bayes, Steven Epp, and an adept band of lunatic supporting players nail the needed anarchy. As a red-faced superintendent, Liam Craig does a bit where he’s simply leaning over a chair, hyperventilating, that had me in hysterics. Allen Gilmore is as smooth at breaking character as Epp is (for an out-of-the-blue stand-up comedy anecdote). Eugene Ma embodies big-weakling-sidekick bit that’s been surefire from Shakespeare through Moliere through Hogan’s Heroes’ Sergeant Schultz. Molly Bernard, the only woman in the cast (as is acknowledged in one of the show’s many self-referential rants) graduated from the Yale School of Drama just last spring, where she distinguished herself mainly with childlike, precocious parts. Here, she’s got great comical poise and grace as a Oriana Fallaci-like news reporter. You wonder why this vibrantly physical actress has been directed to sit down so much, until she unleashes some ludicrously lithe leg-crossing shtick.

JOAN MARCUS PHOTO Accidental Death of an Anarchist, like the same team’s Servant of Two Masters and A Doctor in Spite of Himself, is loaded with distractions. It fires off jokes like buckshot. It finds fun in stereotypes and clichés. But unlike those earlier attempts at a new form of Euro-American stage comedy, Anarchist’s original hijinks are in sync with the script that spawned them. Plus, the play’s about oppression and political miscalculation and governmental incompetence—much more topical and timely than the previous shows’ procession of primping courtiers and princes.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist clicks. Then it does even more than that. It explodes.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist plays (and we do means plays) through Dec. 21 at the Yale Repertory Theatre (1120 Chapel St., New Haven; 203-432-1234, www.yalerep.org)

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