Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Accidental Death of an Anarchist
Signal Ensemble Theatre

Also see John's review of Mary

Anthony Tournis, Eric Paskey (legs) and Joseph Stearns
This 1970 Italian political satire by Dario Fo, which has been produced in various English translations around the US and the UK, imagines in darkly comic terms what might really have happened in the real-life case of an Italian who fell to his death from a fourth-floor police station window while being interrogated for a fatal terrorist bombing in Milan. In Fo's imagining, a clever mad man—you know, the wise fool archetype—finds himself in a position to interrogate the interrogators. While under arrest for impersonating a university professor, the Madman, as he is called, intercepts a phone call warning the police inspector who has just interviewed him that a judge from Rome is about to arrive at the police station to conduct an official investigation of the anarchist's interrogation. The madman, a serial impersonator and alumnus of some 16 mental institutions, takes the opportunity to pose as the Roman judge and confront the fourth floor detectives who interrogated the anarchist and may be responsible for his death.

This premise owes much to Gogol's The Government Inspector (or the 1949 Danny Kaye film The Inspector General adapted from it), in which a common man is mistaken for a powerful government official and shakes up the power structure. As executed here, it has a distinctly Marx Brothers tone, with the Madman (Joseph Stearns) as a Groucho-like foil to the interrogators—played comically enough themselves to be seen as Chico and Harpo. Director Anthony Ingram gives the piece that sort of energy and pace, as well as ample physical comedy focusing on the fourth-floor window, through which the police detectives themselves may fall—and on the Madman's myriad disguises, which include a wooden hand or leg. Over 110 minutes of playing time, though, this pace and tone get monotonous, particularly since there's nowhere near the number of jokes the Marxes would have provided.

The cast is game for the challenge, giving relentless energy to the insanity. Stearns has an air of complete confidence and superiority over the police—he clearly has the superior intellect compared to the officials. Anthony Tournis is slimy as the "Sporty Inspector" and Eric Paskey a slippery Commissioner. Vincent Lonergan is an exasperated and somewhat befuddled Inspector Bertozzo, the officer who initially arrests the Madman; and Simone Roos is the attractive and ambitious journalist who also seeks out the real story behind the anarchist's death. None of them bring anything particularly unexpected to these familiar archetypes, though, and that makes the two hours feel a little longer.

The target of Fo's satire is relevant to Chicago audiences, some 40 years and 4000 miles away, what with our own scandals of alleged police torture. Yet, the familiarity of the piece's premise and its character types might require more comedic invention than we have a right to expect from a non-Equity troupe (though the 1984 Broadway production was performed by no less than Jonathan Pryce, Patti LuPone and Bill Irwin, and it only ran a few weeks). Signal's Accidental Death of an Anarchist is a nice try, but in the end, maybe not such a great fit for the company.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist will play through March 19, 2011, at the Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave., Chicago. For tickets, visit or call 773-347-1350.

Photo: Johnny Knight

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