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.

     
     

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REVIEW: The Play About the Baby (BackStage Theatre)

BackStage gets sexy, absurd

 

 
BackStage Theatre presents
 
The Play About the Baby
 
by Edward Albee
directed by
Matthew Reeder
at
Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 8th (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Longevity seems to be a difficult goal for many great American playwrights. Not that their works can’t endure for years to come, which is why they’re great. However, many of them struggle with churning out great plays over the entire span of their career. Quite a few start off white hot, but lose their streak as the years wear on. Arthur Miller won his first Tony in his thirties for All My Sons, but ended his career with the mediocre Finishing the Picture after years of other mediocre plays. Tennessee Williams  also witnessed the success of The Glass Menagerie in his thirties, but didn’t see much success in the last thirty years of his life.

Edward Albee, however, apparently has escaped this curse. He started his career with the brilliant Zoo Story in 1958 and won the Tony Award in 2003 for his brilliant The Goat, or Who is Silvia? He still has his duds (I’m looking at you, Sandbox) but he has definitely aged well and is still kicking out revisions and new works. The Play About the Baby is one of his later plays (1998). It captures the refreshing absurdism that put Albee on the map, even though it was written after most other absurdists were dead. Not often produced, it’s a treat that BackStage Theatre is mounting the rarely seen play, even though it has its bumps.

The play is indeed about a baby, but also about reality, perception, loss of innocence—pretty mature stuff. It starts with a Boy and Girl (Patrick De Nicola and Kate Cares, respectively), living their blissful lives in a blinding white Eden-like setting. They are blessed with a baby, youth, and unquenchable sex drives. Their world is invaded by the bizarrely vaudevillian Man and Woman (Michael Paces and Karen Yates ). The baby mysteriously disappears, and Boy and Girl do whatever they can to find it (or possibly, believe in it again?). Innocence is stripped away. A double-headed snake, the Man and Woman force-feed the younger couple the fruit of knowledge.

Matthew Reeder’s production is surreal, hilarious, disturbing, intimate, and heartbreaking. He doesn’t try to cram a concept onto Albee, but presents the script as written. Some have suggested theories like Man and Woman are Boy and Girl grown up, but you won’t find any hint of that here. As whacky as it is, Reeder’s interpretation of the play is straightforward. This was the smart choice, but unfortunately Albee can get a little confusing, with his blurring of theatricality, absurdism, and reality. The second act, for example, is pretty much the first act chopped up and repeated. Everything gets a little muddled towards the end; it can be hard to keep up.

The cast deeply respects Albee. De Nicola is vicious yet infantile; Cares matches his vulnerability with soft-spoken empathy and a (occasionally disturbing) motherly quality. Paces and Yates are charismatic, funny, and sort of terrifying. Their extended direct addresses can slip into Open Mic Night stand-up territory, but overall they keep the ship afloat and the audience entertained.

This is only the second production of The Play About the Baby in the city since the Chicago premier in 2003. That isn’t too surprising—Albee doesn’t stake out a clear narrative, there’s full-frontal nudity…even the fact that no character has an actual name is kind of scary. Reeder and BackStage bravely stage this tough script, though, and the cast never backs down from Albee’s challenges. Next season sees a flurry of Albee (both newer and older, but all of it is genius), and BackStage’s The Play About the Baby is a deliciously absurd first course.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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