Not for nothing have I just dropped what might be the first ever F-bomb in these decorous columns. It’s there to prime you for “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” a must-see at the Berkeley Rep from now through April 20th. The two-act satire is profane, thoroughly offensive and not to be missed – an incendiary piece of anarchist agitprop that lives up to every word in the above headline.
It’s fey to the point of drop-dead zaniness. But it unsparingly cries “fie” upon the poohbahs of the world – just the sort of “scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden” that earned its author, Dario Fo, the 1997 Nobel Literature Prize, some 28 years after he penned “Accidental Death.” Laureate status, by all accounts, has done nothing to curb his incorrigible potty mouth.
Fo described this play as “grotesque farce based on a tragic farce” – a 1969 bank bombing that killed 16 and wounded over 100 Milanese. The bomb turned out to have been planted by neo-Fascist thugs in cahoots with police, CIA and NATO intelligence operatives. But those little details only came out after decades of investigation.
Meanwhile, in the Cold War climate of the times, the blast was blamed on Italy’s then ascendant left-wing parties. Some 4,000 anarchists were rounded up and one of them “happened to” fall to his death from a fourth-floor police station window after three days of incommunicado third degree. His three police interrogators were acquitted after the death was ruled “accidental.”
By Fo’s lights, to win such a verdict the cops would need to concoct a series of increasingly outrageous alibis after each previous version collapses under the weight of its own absurdity. To guide them in this effort of imagination, Fo introduces the character of The Maniac – a certified lunatic, fresh out of the asylum. He seems to suffer from Tourette’s Syndrome, for he keeps getting hauled in on charges of false impersonation, only to be later sprung on grounds of insanity.
Noting the frantic cover-up effort going on around the precinct, this compulsive impostor can’t resist lending a hand, first in the role of a magistrate and then as a forensic investigator. He cajoles the cops into ever-more preposterous lies about their solicitude for the hapless anarchist. At the entr’acte he even has the police (and the whole audience) caterwauling anarchist anthems.
Considering that Fo wrote The Maniac role for himself, based on a decades-old “cold case” in Italy, it’s amazing that this Americanized version of “Accidental Death” still has the power to keep a NorCal audience simultaneously in stitches and in high dudgeon. I guess it’s a testimonial to the ongoing, border-spanning shamelessness of our powers-that-be. And also to the manic genius of Steven Epp, whose Maniac somehow melds Groucho Marx bamboozlement with Mick Jagger edginess.
But this is hardly a one-man show. Stand-out supporting performances by Liam Craig as a beef-brained Superintendent of Police, and Renata Friedman as a waspish “gotcha” journalist. Eugene Ma plays a plashy constable (well, actually, two constables, a feat he achieves by swapping out false moustaches) and enlivens the numerous song-and-dance numbers with falsetto harmonies and fancy footwork.
All of which is coordinated with impeccable timing by director Christopher Bayes, whose long innings as an actor, choreographer and director have earned him a string of professional and academic honors. So tightly has he wound the clockwork of this production that, by the end of “Accidental Death,” you feel completely, physically wrung-out from the non-stop belly laughs.
Well, not quite non-stop. In the antepenultimate scene, Epp breaks into an off-script riff on the sorry catalogue of official chicanery since 1969. He brings it all right down to our own time and place. It’s a well known litany: everything from Watergate to Sadaam’s alleged WMD to Iraqi “Mission Accomplished” to Citizens’ United to bankster heists to CEO bonuses to NSA wiretaps to climate denial. The flimflams are no less ridiculous or tragic or outrageous than any police skullduggery from 1970’s Milan. But somehow it elicits no more than a few scattered titters from the audience. Too near the bone?
And then Epp concludes the whole cadenza with a shrug and a sigh: “Well, what are you going to do?” (Pause for a beat). “What are you going to do?” (Beat). “What are you going to do?”
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.