Satirical play ‘Anarchist’ forges a fickle political message

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In 1969, Giuseppe Pinelli, a railway worker and member of a small anarchist collective, was arrested and interrogated for three days by Italian authorities without the presence of a judge in relation to several bomb explosions in Milan and Rome. On the third day, he fell to his death out of a fourth-floor window at the police headquarters where he had been detained. His death was deemed “accidental.”

Welcome to the Anni di piombo or “Years of Lead” — named in reference to the mass number of bullets fired in Italy from the late ’60s to the late ’80s. During this time, conservative political groups and neo-Fascists sought power from the left and did so by planting bombs and derailing trains, often with the help of the government, pinning the blame on the opposing side.

In 1970, Dario Fo, theatrical extraordinaire, joined the fight against government corruption the best way he knew how — with the power of theater. His satirical play, “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” based on the true events that occurred the year prior, premiered in December of 1970 and catapulted the playwright to international acclaim. A renowned theatre-maker with a finesse for fusing quick-witted political satire with social humor, Fo won the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature in 1997.

“Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” reimagined under the direction of Christopher Bayes of the now-defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune and adapted by Gavin Richards, premiered Wednesday night at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in affiliation with the Yale Repertory Theatre. Bayes reunites with theatrical luminary and another veteran of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Steven Epp, who stars in the main role as the man simply known as “the maniac.” The two had previously collaborated in 2012 on Berkeley Rep’s “A Doctor in Spite of Himself,” which included four of the six “Anarchist” cast members.

The latest revamp of “Anarchist” returns to the stage chock-full of contemporary references ranging from Bush-Cheney waterboarding to the Boston Marathon bombing, fourth-wall breaking commentary, stand-up comedy bits and outbursts of musical numbers, making it more relevant than ever while retaining its original humorous wit.

After being called into the police headquarters for committing fraud, a maniac (Epp) with a knack for impersonations swindles his way into an investigation centered on the alleged “accidental” death that took place in the same building just weeks prior. With a robe and periwig in tow, the maniac takes on the role of the judge sent to assist the interrogating officers in reworking their account of events leading up to the plunge. Along the way, he exposes the corruption, cowardice and hypocrisies of the system.

The newly refined characters are easily the finest part of Bayes’s “Anarchist.” This is especially so in the case of the three interrogating officers who each fit a different, yet equally relevant, stereotypical mold — Liam Craig’s bald and beer-bellied Superintendent, Allen Gilmore’s sitcom-like Pissani and Eugene Ma’s aloof, doughnut-eating Constables.

While “Anarchist” succeeds at pointing a satirical finger at the political realities of our time as well as of the past, the production ultimately strays from its apparent goal of deeply engraving a social message. The sheer amount of rapid-fire humor almost takes away from the meaningful political message intended, even in the case of a satirical work. Aside from a fourth-wall breaking monologue delivered by Epp in the second act in which he tactfully attacks the two most recent presidential administrations and Wall Street greed, the rest of the script is simply too farcical to communicate anything too serious.

“Accidental Death of an Anarchist” runs at the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theater from March 7 – April 20. Tickets range from $27.50 – $69.00.

Michelle Lin covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].