Theater Review: “Accidental Death of an Anarchist – The Vexation of Violence

Dario Fo’s dark comedy still deserves its reputation as a classic.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo, translated and adapted from the Italian by Gavin Richards and Gillian Hanna. Directed by James Peter Sotis. Presented by Praxis Stage at First Church in Boston, Boston, MA, through December 17.

A scene from the Praxis

A scene from the Praxis Stage production of Accidental Death of an Anarchist” featuring Tennah Sillah, Alexandra Smith, and Alexander Castillo-Nuñez. Photo: courtesy of Daniel Boudreau.

By Ian Thal

At a Milanese police station that still hasn’t taken down its portrait of Benito Mussolini, Inspector Francesco Bertozzo (Daniel Boudreau) is booking a suspect (Alexander Castillo-Nuñez) for impersonating a psychiatrist. The suspect already has sixteen prior arrests for fraudulently passing himself off as members of various respected and learned professions: doctors, lawyers, professors. There has been no convictions; he is a maniac, specifically a histriomaniac. His compulsion to act roles and to make members of the public unwitting players in his dramas and comedies has been deemed a form of insanity. He is routinely found not-guilty and receives only temporary stints of institutionalization. More important, much to the frustration of Bertozzo and the sergeant (Alexandra Smith), the maniac has become an expert in how law governs special cases like his. He is already looking for his next role.

The maniac discovers that this is the infamous police station where an anarchist fell out a fourth floor window during a recent interrogation (as if the protests in the street haven’t given it away). So the maniac decides to play a role he has always hoped to take on —  a high court official sent to investigate just what happened on the fourth floor.

Dario Fo wrote Accidental Death of an Anarchist in the early days of what would later be called “The Years of Lead,” a period from 1968 to 1982 marked by waves terrorist violence by numerous far-right and far-left groups (some of whom were receiving covert backing from intelligence services on both sides of the Iron Curtain). The premise draws direct inspiration from the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, a railway worker and anarchist who fell to his death from a fourth floor window of a police station while being interrogated in connection with the December 12, 1969 bombing of the Agrarian Bank in Milan’s Piazza Fontana. The explosion killed 17 (Fo’s text says 16) and injured 88. Police initially claimed that Pinelli had committed suicide by jumping out the window during questioning, but a subsequent 1970 investigation termed it an accidental death. The press charged that Police Commissioner Luigi Calabresi was responsible for Pinelli’s death; and in 1972 he was assassinated by members of the far-left group Lotta Continua. There was never any evidence presented that Pinelli, or the Italian chapter of the Anarchist Black Cross, of which he was the secretary, had been involved with terrorism.

In time, the Piazza Fontana bombing was determined to have been perpetrated not by anarchists but by members of the neo-fascist Ordine Nuovo as part of a larger bombing campaign (it was one of three such successful attacks that day in Italy). The group’s aim had been to blame the attacks on far-left groups. Clearly, some factions within Italy’s security services were less interested in determining the truth, but making use of the license that this fiction provided.

Dark material from which to construct a farce, yet the play still deserves its reputation as a classic. Fo’s choice to put direct quotations from those involved in the Pinelli case — from official police statements and forensics inquiries — into the mouths of both the maniac and the investigative journalist Maria Feletti (Tenneh Sillah) exposes absurdity up and down the blue line, not just police corruption, but the head-scratching incompetence of their attempt to cover up their responsibility for Pinelli’s death.

Castillo-Nuñez gives an extraordinary performance as the maniac: his not-so secret weapon is his physical mastery of the actor’s most important tool — his own body. In moments of manic revery he will, at times, glide across the floor. When the maniac decides that the character he plays has a war injury, Castillo-Nuñez adopts a subtle of limp that never becomes the focus of the character’s physicality – despite a performance that is determinedly larger-than-life. His comic timing is so precise that it inspires the clockwork of his cast mates.

Alexandra Smith’s sergeants (one for each floor) are burlesques of strutting macho insecurity. They often hang in the background but are never still: eating pasta from takeout boxes, taking notes, fiddling with evidence. Boudreau’s Bertozzo is a send-up of the hard-boiled, no-nonsense, overworked cop. He makes good use of his towering stature to amplify his growing frustration with the madness around him. Danny Mourino as Inspector Pissani, the fourth floor interrogator, Michael Anderson as the unnamed Commissioner, and Sillah as Feletti (who doesn’t show up until the play’s third act), don’t make as strong an impression. That might be because Fo’s script turns the cops into puppets easily jerked around by the maniac. Moreover, Feletti is essentially a plot device, a means to introduce incriminating evidence against the police regarding the death of Pinelli. She also serves as the straw-woman for Fo’s antagonism towards liberal (bourgeois) democracy and its institutions – such as the press. Unfortunately director James Peter Sotis and crew did not find a way to create more substantial comic archetypes.

Dario Fo and Franca Rame (his wife and constant collaborator both on and off-stage) were brilliant improvisors. Fo always encouraged actors, in this spirit, to improvise with his scripts. Such ad-libs as “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and “alt-left” will certainly resonate with Americans thinking about the often contrafactual and contradictory statements tweeted by President Trump and his apologists. But some of the other stabs at updating fall a little flat. The political climate in Italy was and is peculiar (especially during the Years of Lead, when almost every party in a fractious parliament had some terrorist activity they were willing to overlook).

In his fine critical study Dario Fo: People’s Court Jester, Tony Mitchell observes that it’s hard to transport some of Fo’s farces outside of their initial setting. Thus the futility of the attempt here to make Accidental Death of an Anarchist  particularly “relevant” to Americans. Praxis Stage has inserted a list of what could be called “issues that American leftists on social media purport to care about” – and it sadly comes across as superficial, lacking any real analysis connecting the production with the central themes of the play. We are asked to see a link between Pinelli’s death and that of Eric Garner. This is baffling: in what way is the incompetent and craven police reaction to terrorist acts in 1969’s Milan analogous to the racism that led to the death of an African-American man being killed by the police for selling loose cigarettes? And then that death was likened to “tanks in Hebron.”  These leaps amount to a fundamentally anti-intellectual refusal to think about the particularities of European political extremism, American racism, and the Israeli-Arab conflict. Why not just embrace the Italian ‘Years of Lead’ setting and invite audiences to find their own analogies. Why be so heavy-handed about the play’s relevance?

(Side note: Also, this production’s choice to place the intermission at a midpoint in the play’s runtime derails the narrative flow of Fo’s script. The fifteen minute break takes place midway through the second act of what is structurally a three-act play.)

Fo himself changed the ending to Accidental Death of an Anarchist multiple times. He eventually settled (at least in the 1973 translation and adaptation by Gavin Richards and Gillian Hanna chosen by Praxis) on offering the audience two choices: The proponents of liberal democracy (represented by the journalist Feletti) must either abandon liberalism and accept extremist left-wing violence or be killed by right-wing extremists. It is a dichotomy that Fo himself seemed to step away from as the Years of Lead continued. Ever the unpredictable anarchist, he openly denounced the Soviet Bloc-backed Brigate Rosse – especially when they kidnapped and murdered Prime Minister Aldo Moro — but he never fully rejected terror as an option. This embrace of violence will continue to vex admirers of Fo, whom this critic still considers to be one of the most distinctive voices in twentieth century theater, if only because his plays demand argument, not just appreciation.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report

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