“I don’t like to defend a person; that’s a passive occupation. I like to judge. I fit right in with your kind of people, dear Inspector,” says The Maniac (Isabel Q. Carey ’12) with ironic relish as she outwits an Italian police inspector. Dario Fo’s dark farce “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” has the potential to deliver strong judgment on police brutality, corruption, and any number of issues depending on a director’s chosen political context. Visiting director Stephen Squibb’s production, replete with dance numbers, slapstick, and drag, chooses a somewhat different but equally satisfying approach. Due to the cast’s impeccable comedic timing, an exceptional performance on Carey’s part, and Squibb’s playful theatricality, the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s production of “Accidental Death of an Anarchist”—which runs until November 5 on the Loeb Mainstage—is thoroughly enjoyable despite its halfhearted attempt at a pointed political critique of the financial crisis.
Fo’s Italian farce, published in 1970, is based on the actual death of an accused anarchist, who either fell or was thrown from the fourth-floor window of a Milan police station in 1969. The play opens with the much put-upon Inspector Bertozzo (Georgina B. Parfitt ’13) interrogating Carey’s Maniac. The Maniac discovers that a judge is about to arrive to investigate a similar death and decides to impersonate the judge. In that role, he convinces the police involved in the anarchist’s interrogation to reenact the events leading to the death in the original fourth-floor hotel room.
Squibb has made extensive alterations to the original text, an uncontroversial decision given Fo’s embrace of improvisation and revision, and the production still bears the trademarks of farce. Two gummy worm-eating, bumbling constables (Daniel W. Erickson ’14 and Sam S. Richman ’15) serve as clowns. Unbridled slapstick reigns as characters chase each other around the room. Squibb does not betray the play’s black comedy, but his “Anarchist” is filled with well-executed and entertaining whimsy. Cast members dance while assembling the set themselves, even skipping in a circle, hands linked, after placing down a table. At one point, the ensemble breaks into five-part harmony; elsewhere, they perform an ebullient dance number to Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
Squibb’s revisions are about more than creating an atmosphere of irreverence, however. There is a naked theatricality to his “Anarchist” which is illustrated not only in details such as the simple, undisguised drag of the female actors—unnatural chest padding and long hair merely tied back—but also in the characters’ metatheatrical acknowledgment of the stage. Occasionally Squibb’s theatricality feels excessive, a problem exemplified by an infrequent laugh track that startles to little illumination.
Squibb’s use of the Loeb Mainstage is highly unconventional. Set designer J. Michael Griggs has blocked off nearly half the seating with caution tape and crates. The audience is split into the two sections that face each other and border the linoleum flooring that serves as the stage. It feels peculiar to be surrounded by a few hundred empty seats but the resulting intimacy with the actors, rarely found in the Mainstage, is highly rewarding given the ensemble’s talent.
Though Carey’s character impersonates a judge, she most closely resembles a conductor, orchestrating the bumbling policemen around her with great subtlety. Carey has an arsenal of entertaining accents and tics at her disposal, but she really shines in conveying the quiet intelligence that belies the Maniac’s eccentricities. Her ability to layer multiple levels of meaning in her speech is showcased when delivering seemingly nonsensical one-liners like “let’s just say you will recognize him when his fist hits your face.”
Squibb’s cast is a cohesive ensemble, whether performing choreography to an ’80s ballad or engaging in swift wordplay. Brianne Holland-Stergar ’13 and Vanessa B. Koo ’12 as Sports Jacket and the Superintendent, respectively, are a perfectly cast pair. Stergar is able to channel the Captain’s stupidity without being cloying, and her dynamic with Koo’s quick temper is hilarious. Erickson’s and Richman’s constables are delightful as the clowns of this farce, but never distract from the main action. Richman and Erickson also deftly handle the play’s otherwise misguided prologue.
The vast majority of the production’s political sentiment is presented in this prologue and the play’s ending, which are bookends to the farce. The reenactment of the anarchist’s interrogation provides some commentary on police brutality, but hardly a damning one. The few attempts to modernize the piece do not culminate in a strong statement. When Koo makes a joke lamenting the arrests of screenwriters, including Diablo Cody of ‘Juno’ fame, it falls flat not due to any fault in Koo’s delivery but due to the lack of expectation for such a topical remark. Though the attempts at modern political commentary fail to jibe with the bulk of the play’s action, the farcical humor is adulterated with thematic import. There are moments that point clearly to police misconduct, and the Maniac’s ability to control the police with nothing more than an authoritative voice and a wrinkled judge’s robe speaks to the power of authority. “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” asks to be taken seriously, but it does so with a gratifying wink.
—Staff writer Hayley C. Cuccinello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.