Review: Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Signal Ensemble)

     
     

A powerful, manic waltz with unctuous tyranny

     
     

Joseph Stearns, Elizabeth Bagby, Vincent Lonergan, Signal Ensemble Theatre, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Dario Fo, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight

   
Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
   
Accidental Death of an Anarchist
   
Written by Dario Fo
Directed by
Anthony Ingram
at Signal Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice
(map)
through March 19  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There’s a moment during Signal Ensemble’s production of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist when the Madman (Joseph Stearns) asks the Commissioner (Eric Paskey), “Weren’t you the warden of that secret prison who did secret things to secret people?” Would that the question didn’t conjure up images of Gitmo, Bagram Airfield and CIA planes transporting black-hooded terrorist suspects to black sites all around the world, yet it does. It’s impossible to complacently relinquish Fo’s brilliant farce to corrupt 1970’s Italy–and that is precisely the point. That world is too much with us. Under Anthony Ingram’s direction, if Signal’s well-oiled and indefatigable cast demonstrates anything, it’s how Fo peels back layer upon layer of mendacious civilization until nothing is left but raw, exposed, abusive power desperately trying to justify itself.

Chris Walsh, Joseph Stearns, Elizabeth Bagby, Vincent Lonergan, Signal Ensemble Theatre, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight, Accidental Death of an AnarchistSince chicanery is the order of the day, why have a protagonist that takes any of it seriously but can deal out sophistry as fast and loose as his foes? As the Madman, hauled into the precinct for dozens of illegal impersonations, Stearns conveys Fo’s rage against the machine with urgent and fierce flippancy. Stearns plays Bugs Bunny to Inspector Bertozzo’s (Vincent Lonergan) Elmer Fudd, while, as Officers 1 and 2, respectively, Elizabeth Bagby and Christopher M. Walsh make their greatest comic impact just standing around munching donuts. After bamboozling Bertozzo into releasing him, the Madman discovers that a judge from Rome will arrive shortly to re-open the investigation into police misconduct over the suicide, er, accidental death, of an anarchist in their custody.

Fo’s play is based upon a true incident of police abuse that took place in Italy in 1969 and audiences would do well to refer to the excellent dramaturgical background on the incident posted in Signal’s lobby. A three-year investigation into the incident revealed layer upon layer of deep and disturbing corruption, with links to fascist elements supported by the government. It’s a tribute, not only to Fo’s work, but also to the fast and bold, controlled frenzy of the cast that such heavy and onerous themes never drag or lose their farcical edge.

The shining comic triad of the evening lines up between Madman, the Commissioner and the Sporty Inspector (Anthony Tournis). The Madman impersonates the Roman judge and pulls one version of the incident after another from men desperate to save their careers—“You guys ought to be novelists!” Ah, but novelists rarely get to sport aviator sunglasses to make people respect their authori-tay or engage in inspired near-death acrobatics at the window. Stearns, Paskey and Tournis take the play’s slapstick to the limit and one might easily order their arrest for having too much fun with their parts.

It’s kidding in deadly earnest. Layered into the performances is a thread of ironic camaraderie between the police and their anarchist prey. Again and again, Fo hints at their cheek-by-jowl relationship. Far from being violent rebels, anarchists “enjoy their creature comforts,” and are petite bourgeois. Whereas the police, as spies, make up the majority of anarchist cells and know all the words for a rousing chorus of “The Whole World is My Homeland.”

        
Anarchist #6 Anarchist #7 Eric Pasky, Simone Roos, Signal Ensemble Theatre, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight, Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Signal Ensemble shines best when it depicts their bad romance. Act 2, with the introduction of the Reporter (Simone Roos), doesn’t have the same punch as the first. The second act is supposed to drive the comedy into train wreck territory and Stearn’s costumes are a hoot, but his performance comes close to being dangerously preachy. It’s also at risk of being lost for the jumble of slapstick happening toward the back of Signal’s small stage. If only Ingram’s direction could clean up the sightlines a little more. Nevertheless, overall, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is one to see. Signal Ensemble’s production is a powerful, manic waltz through the life-lies Western culture depends upon—necessary medicine, with a ton of farcical sugar to help it all go down.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  
Christopher M. Walsh, Joseph Sterns, Anthony Tournis, Elizabeth Bagby, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight, Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Joseph Stearns, Signal Ensemble, Dario Fo, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight

Accidental Death of an Anarchist runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., through March 19, at the Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 West Berenice Ave. in Chicago. Tickets/info at 773-347-1350; www.signalensemble.com.

All photo by Johnny Knight.

     
     

Artists

PRODUCTION: Ensemble members Anthony Ingram (Director), Stephanie Ehemann (Stage Manager), Melania Lancy (Scenic Design), and Aaron Snook (Dramaturgy) ; with guest artists Mark Hurni (Lighting Design), Jenilee Houghton (Costume Design), Mary O’Dowd (Properties Design), Christopher M. Walsh (Violence Design), and Johnny Knight (Photos).

CAST: Ensemble members Vincent Lonergan (Bertozzo), Simone Roos (Reporter), and Joseph Stearns (Madman); with guest artists Elizabeth Bagby (Officer), Eric Paskey (Commissioner), Anthony Tournis (Sporty), and Christopher M. Walsh (Officer).

Elizabeth Bagby, Anthony Tournis, Christopher M. Walsh, Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Johnny Knight

     
     

2 Responses

  1. This play is funny, intelligent and a great theatre evening. Saw it in previews and was impressed by the performances and the skilfull nuances in the directing. Signal Ensemble theatre has an amazing range and this is one of their top efforts. I’m going to see it again.

  2. Thanks, Margery. It is a must see show and I hope Signal has great success with it.

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