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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Dario Fo's Anarchist: Marxist Agitprop at its Best

Philip Goodwin, Kevin Isola, and
Jeffrey M. Bender

Very few of the pro-Communist, anti-American plays of the Vietnam War area that were particularly popular among young people were sufficiently artful or insightful to be successfully produced beyond the era that inspired them. A decided exception is Italian Marxist playwright Dario Fo's brilliant 1970 satiric farce, Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

On December 12, 1969, a bomb was exploded in Milan (one of three bombs set off simultaneously in Italy) killing 16 people. Giuseppe Pinelli, a railroad worker and prominent anarchist activist, was arrested for the crime. Three days after his arrest and while still being interrogated, Pinelli fell to his death from a fourth story window at the Milan police building. The police claimed that the fall was accidental, but many people think the police were criminally responsible for his death. Three police officers, including the commissioner, were placed under investigation for their actions, but Pinelli's death was ruled to have been accidental. This event provided the basis for Anarchist.

Fortunately, Fo is here a master at combining elements of commedia dell'arte with the fast-paced farcical anarchy of a Marx Brothers movie in the service of his social and political views. "Maniac," a brilliant, certified lunatic, finds himself in Milan central police headquarters just when a Special Counsel to the "High Court" is expected to arrive to conduct an investigation into the role of the three interrogators in the death of the accused bomber. Thus far, the authorities have ignored the improbability and the inconsistency of their explanations. An incorrigible swindler-impersonator, "Maniac" passes himself off as the expected Special Counsel.

Again, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has given a difficult play to perform an exemplary production. Kevin Isola brings a dapper manner and crafty madness reminiscent of Harold Lloyd to his hilariously determined Maniac. Edmond Genest, Jeffrey M. Bender, and Andrew Weems as the three complicit officers play straight man to Isola's pretend Chief Counsel while being delightfully funny themselves.

As the Superintendent grabs at each and every potential lifeline which might enable him to escape from having his role in the anarchist's death revealed, Edmond Genest incrementally ups the comic ante by embodying an ever-increasing awareness that he is being led down the road to revealing his callow nature. Jeffrey M. Bender hits the right notes as the knuckle-handed, clueless constable under investigation. Bender appropriately plays a second constable as his interchangeable twin idiot. Andrew Weems portrays an angrily befuddled Inspector Pisani.

Early on, Philip Goodwin's Inspector Bertozzo is a fine and funny foil for Isola, as he expects with misplaced confidence to put an end to the shenanigans of Maniac. Kristie Dale Sanders nicely rounds out the cast as a reporter whose arrival adds to the complications.

Performed in two acts, The Accidental Death of an Anarchist does occasionally feel a tad attenuated and repetitious. There are a number of English translations/adaptations of Anarchist, and it has been reported that Fo encourages new adaptations and updates. This version, translated by Ed Emery, appears to hew closely to the Italian original. It should be noted that against all odds forty years after the fact, the agitprop clearly remains as effective as the farce for those with a dim view of America's custodianship of great world power. Others may be put off by Fo's embrace of Marxism and antipathy toward America. However, when a theatre opts to stage Anarchist, the espousal of the ideas of the "new left" is a necessary part of the package if the play is not to be eviscerated. The same can be said for any review of it.

Director Paul Mullins has staged as funny and expert a farce as one would hope. There may not be the requisite number of doors, but they are not missed when anarchy is allowed to reign as seemingly unfettered as it does here. Scenic Designer Michael Schweikardt has created an interesting, evocative setting, nicely using an oft employed but clever device in the transitioning to the play's second of two sets.

Authorities eventually cleared Pinelli and, thirty years later, obtained the (since overturned) convictions of three neo-fascists for the crime. Anarchist proposes that neo-fascists in collaboration with the authorities set off the December 1970 bombs in Italy in order to frame left wing communist agitators, undermine the latter's efforts to help the working class achieve their just due, and create public support for a repressive neo-fascist government.

Before the final curtain of The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, the hated USA is attacked for massacring Vietnamese and for its stockpile of enough deadly nerve gas to kill the world's population three times over. Fo is a 9/11 "truther" who can be seen in the 2008 schizophrenic documentary film Zero smugly and delightedly "proving" that America and its military themselves brought down the World Trade Center and framed peaceable al-Qaeda.

The Accidental Death of an Anarchist continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 pm (except 8/28); Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Matinees: Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm) through August 28, 2011, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online:

The Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo; Translated by Ed Emery; Directed by Paul Mullins

Maniac...............................Kevin Isola
Inspector Bertozzo.......Philip Goodwin
Constables...............Jeffrey M. Bender
Inspector Pisani...........Andrew Weems
Superintendent...........Edmond Genest
Maria Feletti.........Kristie Dale Sanders

Photo: Photo: ©Gerry Goodstein

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