Was it a five-star production? Hell, I'd have given it six. All three were at the top of their game as Tom Marriott directed Jay O'Berski and Jeffrey Detwiler in an original, hellzapoppin' political farce drawing significant parallels between current civic broils and a historic American shame.
But it was May 2000, not 2010, when their upstart company, Shakespeare and Originals, debuted A Mouthfulla Sacco and Vanzetti at Manbites Dog Theater. After critical acclaim, appreciative audiences and a far too brief run, the show joined a select pantheon of vanguard productions this region has produced in the past 20 years. Whenever anyone asked how good regional theater could possibly be, it was always among the productions that provided the appropriate answer: world-class.
Ten years later—almost to the day—this triumvirate has reconvened, aligning with a different constellation of strong supporting actors. Again, Marriott is at the helm of a particularly sharp-toothed original civic satire: ¡ANARCHIST!, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern's free-wheeling adaptation of Nobel laureate Dario Fo's caustic political farce, Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Again, the production pointedly takes on the political atrocities of our day by investigating an earlier miscarriage of justice. Again, Marriott's direction highlights the sardonic genius of its lead actors—including a career-defining performance by O'Berski. (And yes, given that protean theatrical's résumé, that is saying quite a lot.)
Again, I'm in the presence of a work that transcends most qualifying notions of what "regional" theater can be. If anything, ¡ANARCHIST! equals or exceeds these artists' triumph from 10 years ago. When it's time to talk about the best shows of this decade and this year, I fully expect this hilarious and thought-provoking production to feature prominently on both lists. It closes this weekend. I suggest you drop everything to see it.
Fo's 1970 play was loosely based on the death of one Giuseppe Pinelli, a political activist who died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody after being falsely accused of a bank bombing in Milan, Italy, in mid-December 1969. After three days of what officers claimed were routine interrogations, Pinelli plunged to his death from a police station's fourth-floor window. Though officers said he committed suicide before they could intervene, discrepancies in testimony and physical evidence ultimately resulted in murder charges being brought against his interrogators. None were ever convicted.
But in Fo's world, after being brought in on charges of fraud, an unnamed, manic madman with a flair for the theatrical (and an uncommon gift for impersonation) turns the precinct office upside down in a farcical fact-finding mission.
After outwitting his interrogators, the deceptively named Maniac eavesdrops on a confidential phone call and learns that a federal judge is coming to investigate the suspicious death of a prisoner. Impersonating the judge, the Maniac digs through confidential files and then bamboozles two detectives and their superintendent into restaging the event—thoroughly implicating themselves in the prisoner's death—just before a journalist arrives to cover the story.
This Little Green Pig production appropriately closes the company's self-styled "Italian Season" with a work whose sharp wits, sophisticated physical comedy and costume and makeup design draw upon and update the conventions of commedia dell'arte through the slapstick comedies of the 1930s. ¡ANARCHIST! pointedly skewers present political abominations, including enhanced interrogation techniques and right-wing neo-fascists who aren't about to let a few human rights get in the way of "tak[ing] our country back." But even as ¡ANARCHIST! critically asserts the necessity of political protest against civic corruption, its mode of attack is more closely aligned to the works of Groucho Marx, and not his older namesake, Karl.
In garish garb and clown-white makeup, Jay O'Berski pours satirical intellect and physical energy into the Maniac. His character's pretzel logic subdues his prey with cocked eyebrow and poker face—before leaning across designer Rebecca Buck's footlights to clue us in with a distinctly malevolent grin. O'Berski's emotional intensity as he careens about the stage, sowing chaos in his wake, suggests an agile court jester and avenging angel—an unlikely wedding between Marx's Otis B. Driftwood and Poe's Hop-Frog.
Detwiler, Jeff Alguire and Dan Sipp make an amusingly repellent trio of policemen who savor, with grins and narrowed eyes, the memories of their recent captive before tearfully begging O'Berski's fake judge to help them escape justice. In this adaptation, the audience gets to vote for the ending of their choice—revolution or reform—before Jim Haverkamp's trippy animations help play out the scenarios. On opening night, a crowd convulsed with laughter was briefly stunned into silence—one last joke on us all to gently remind us of the consequences of our own political acts.
Five stars? Hell, I'd give it six.