Beowulf Alley Theatre Company
Weird Italian Marxist comedy has local relevance
'We Won’ Pay! We Won’t Pay!' is a madcap farce that dances around moral and political issues
What at first seems a quirky, even foolish bit of fluff, “We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!” gathers momentum to finish with a big message. That it does so safely within the confines of a 16th Century theatrical tradition makes it that much more powerful.
Italian Marxist comedy seems like an oxymoron, since other than the Yippies, radical political/economic theory is not usually the stuff of laughs. Not that “We Won’t Pay!” gets didactic or preachy. Rather, it is the characters reactions to the unusual circumstances that subtly misdirects our attention and sets us up for the final political point of the work.
Playwright Dario Fo, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature, celebrates the Italian commedia dell’arte form. Emerging in late Renaissance Italy, commedia dell-arte is a style that uses stock characters and broad farce to lampoon foolishness, while often making pointed reference on local populist issues. Under the guise of comedy, the commedia dell-arte form is deliberately provocative and subversive. Director Susan Arnold does a fine job of staying within the classic lines of that tradition.
“We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!” opens with a bit of morally ambiguous rebellion. Several hundred women upset over price increases at the neighborhood supermarket, riot and loot the store. Out of the chaos, we follow one of them, Antonia, to her apartment where she tries to hide her booty from her strict law-and-order husband, Giovanni.
Antonia is aided by her friend, Margherita whose husband, Luigi, works next to Giovanni at the local factory. Antonia’s pitiful haul from the crime includes useless items like birdseed and frozen rabbit heads. The looters are pursued by inept police searching house-to-house for illicit groceries.
Antonia and Giovanni may be well-meaning, but they are not smart. Antonia uses Margherita for the old fake pregnancy ploy to hide the ill-gotten gains, with predictably ridiculous results as Margherita plays Ethel Mertz to Antonia’s Lucy Ricardo. To try and seem like he knows what’s going on, Giovanni makes up implausible explanations for events and activities in which he has no understanding or insight.
If Giovanni is dumb, his pal Luigi manages to be dumber. Giovanni’s law-and-order righteousness is challenged by upcoming layoffs at the factory, while Luigi ponders how his wife got so pregnant so fast.
As issues of morality and microeconomic pricing structure play out onstage, they eventually point to the macroeconomic and political disparities that create these shifts at the household level.
Already translated from Italian, Arnold chooses to give her characters stereotypical pseudo-Italian accents with lots of added A’s, as in “What’sa the matter with-a you?” Adding to this weirdness, one policeman speaks with a German accent; Later, the same actor as a different character sports a British accent.
Teresa Simone is a whirlwind as Antonia. A graduate of the Dell’Arte International School for Physical Theatre in California, she also has “lived, worked and trained” with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Her Antonia is outgoing and energetic — her big heart unfortunately limited by her dim wit. Simone’s commitment to the role and its physical comedy was absolute, casually stuffing cabbages and bags of rice under her friend’s dress or making birdseed soup.
Giovanni, played by Michael Giffords, is an apt partner for Antonia. Giffords doesn’t match her manic energy and it would be exhausting for the audience if he did. However, he imbued his character with a bluster that underscored his character’s awareness that his beliefs were extemporaneous and probably wrong.
Samantha Cormier is Margherita, the hapless sidekick. Cormier is doing double-duty, having directed Arizona Onstage Production’s current musical, “The Marvelous Wonderettes.” In the face of such a physical comedian as Simone, she is often reduced to mugging while the main action plays out, though she has her own moments, what with the cabbage stuffing and helping hide a dead body (don’t ask).
Alan Crombie has the even more hapless role as Luigi, Margherita’s husband. He’s such a schlemiel that he believes the nonsense that Giovanni, an idiot, tells him. Crombie gives the character a cute puppy-dog feel that helps explain his admiration of Giovanni.
Steve McKee as a local police sergeant, a national police trooper, a gravedigger and the stock commedia dell’arte old man, gets the juicy multiple roles. Notwithstanding an ongoing joke about each new character looking somewhat familiar, McKee clearly differentiates each character through accents and body language.
Rounding out the cast are Kyle Dignoti and Saralynn Cano as clownish policemen and other roles.
The play ends abruptly on a serious note that while unexpected, is wholly earned and in keeping with commedia dell’arte traditions. Getting there, it doesn’t hurt that the Marxism of the play is less Karl and more Groucho.