A Case of Comic Anarchy
Soulpepper Theatre gives Dario Fo’s classic police farce a timely Toronto makeover.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist
Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane)
Runs to February 21
Right now, Soulpepper Theatre‘s Accidental Death of an Anarchist can lay fair claim to being the funniest show in town. Whether it’s also an effective satire of police brutality and corruption is another matter, but that can seem a moot question when your sides are shaking with laughter.
This 1970 play is by Italy’s enduringly impish Dario Fo, a relentlessly satirical writer whose long career (he’s pushing 89) has seen him banned repeatedly by Italian television, denounced by the Vatican, barred from entering the United States—and awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature. One of his best-known works, Morte accidentale di un anarchico (as it’s known in Italian), was inspired by the 1969 death of railroad worker Giuseppe Pinelli, an anarchist accused (but later cleared) of bombing a Milan bank, and who died mysteriously while in police custody. Pinelli fell from the fourth-floor window of a police station, and Fo’s fictionalized version revolves around the question of whether it was an accident, suicide, or murder.
Inspired by controversial police incidents in Toronto and, most recently, the U.S., as well as by the renewed “war on terror,” director Ravi Jain has updated Fo’s satire to make it topical again. Now the role of the late anarchist is a VIA Rail switchman from Whitby, Ontario who was part of an alleged terrorist ring that sounds a lot like the “Toronto 18.” His defenestration occurs in a room with a view of the CN Tower, and the cops are grilled by an investigative journalist from either Maclean’s or NOW Magazine—the media-challenged police chief isn’t quite sure.
Fo’s main joke is to throw a madman into the mix—a crafty lunatic with a passion for impersonation, played here with oodles of frenetic energy by Kawa Ada—who reveals the enforcers of the law to be like a bunch of crooked Keystone Kops. When we first meet the Madman, he’s arrested for assuming false identities and outwits a frustrated Inspector Bertozzo (Oliver Dennis) as the latter tries to interrogate him. Later, when the Madman learns that a Superior Court judge is coming from Osgoode Hall to investigate the death, he decides to take his place. Despite his outlandish disguise, he fools Inspector Pak (Ins Choi) and a couple of credulous constables (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Daniel Williston) into re-enacting the events leading up to the anarchist’s suspicious fall.
Soon, the chief (Rick Roberts) shows up, then the journalist (Raquel Duffy), and the Madman/judge dons a second, even more ludicrous disguise, ostensibly to help the cops stage a coverup. When Bertozzo comes back, out of the loop, and recognizes the Madman, there’s a wild scramble to silence him so he won’t blow their scheme.
Jain’s adaptation of Fo’s script is constantly reminding us of the play’s current relevance. There are references to such local policing scandals as the mass arrests at the 2010 G20 summit and the Sammy Yatim streetcar shooting, along with the hot-button issues of racial profiling and the use of solitary confinement. Yet what we’re actually watching on stage is pure old-school buffoonery—a farce about flatfoots and con men, with cartoonish caricatures and gags worthy of a Mel Brooks movie. There’s even an extended violent slapstick routine with accompanying goofy sound effects that conjures up those old knuckleheads, the Three Stooges.
This, of course, is also partly Jain’s contribution. His background is in clowning and physical theatre—remember his Bay Steet satire, Spent? For his Soulpepper directing debut, he’s assembled a terrific cast of clowns. Chief among them, of course, is Ada as the Madman, who uses deception to expose deception. We’ve appreciated the Afghan-Canadian actor’s detailed character work in past shows paperSERIES and Iceland, but this time he’s given license to paint in broad strokes. At one point, his charming maniac claims to have impersonated CBC celeb Ian Hanomansing and, indeed, watching him is like watching Hanomansing impersonating Groucho Marx on speed. There’s an irresistibly ridiculous scene in which he sports an eye patch, a peg leg, and a false hand, like some walking advertisement for a prosthetic supply store.
He also has the perfect dim-bulb foils in Choi, Lee, Roberts, and Williston, and there even appears to be a nod to topicality in their performances. As the hilariously pompous police chief, Roberts resembles a moustachioed Bill Blair with a serious case of bed-head, while the beefy Williston’s eager-to-please constable could be a younger, better-tempered Rob Ford. And Raquel Duffy’s aggressive reporter may even remind you of Ford’s media nemesis, Robyn Doolittle.
Then there’s Dennis, Soulpepper’s king of comedy, who might as well wear a sign reading “Guaranteed to Make You Laugh.” He proves that claim once again, taking the brunt of the slapstick as the (literally) hard-headed inspector who can’t be knocked out. But this is a show where even a quickie scene change on Lorenzo Savoini’s police-station set will have you giggling.
Ultimately, however, this production may be too silly to make any real satiric points. Jain’s staging even seems to admit as much. Late in the play, a frustrated Ada suddenly doffs his own disguise, the Madman, and comes down into the audience as Kawa Ada, actor, to rail about the issues raised by the play. But when he begins to lose focus, a testy Dennis calls him back to the stage. “There’s a fourth wall!” he reminds him, jabbing his finger at that invisible barrier between the actors and us. It gets a big laugh, but it also reminds us that a successful satire makes its points within the context of the play, not outside of it.