The Subversive Theatre celebrates the beginning of its 10th anniversary season with a remounting of the show that gave the company its start, Dario Fo's "Accidental Death of an Anarchist."
It is fitting that the scrappy, underground collective would both inaugurate and commemorate its artistic ethos statement with Fo's play. It is a seminal work in the subversive-art movement, reigniting the age-old comparisons of money to corruption and power to control.
This production does a fine job of reinforcing both the pillars of the Subversive belief system, and the company's role in Buffalo's vastly evolved theater scene of the last decade. Founder Kurt Schneiderman's opening night remarks noted the stage's growth, from the miniscule back room of Allentown's Rust Belt Books, where this play ran 10 years ago, to their current home in the Pierce Arrow building. Their space is an enshrined reminder of blue-collar Buffalo.
Fo's play is an ideal player in this commemoration. The Italian playwright (and general renaissance man, with a Nobel Prize in Literature to his name) tells a straightforward story about the death of a bombing suspect while in custody. We should believe that the police threw the man from a window while being interrogated. The police would have us believe the man committed suicide, the result of his apparent mental illness.
But there isn't any doubt here; the play was based on a real-life scenario that occurred in Milan in 1969, and was written in retaliation for the police department's cover-up. Subversive has shifted the action to Zuccotti Park, the origin of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement last September. The comparisons of Italian police corruption to American financial greed are seamless, and are grounded with stupefying modern-day examples. This is like a great narrative documentary: manipulative in its storytelling but edifying in its factual breakdown.
It is also written in the tradition of commedia dell'arte, a classic Italian form of commentary that uses sarcastic jest, clownlike folly and masks. The small cast here uses these physical techniques to their advantage, and carries a lot of the laughs on the shoulders of their own nuanced improvisation.
The character known as the Maniac is the tent pole of this play. He is the glue that holds all the other commentary together, which takes many of its cues (a few too many) from the audience. There's a healthy dose of meta reference here, where the Maniac interrupts dialogue to mention the stagehand's played-for laziness, or the thick heat in the theater. It's not an entirely effective tool, especially after the eighth interruption in as many minutes. But it's clever when it works.
Todd Fuller gives an impressive performance as our Maniac. He does not play gags for raucous cackles, but for smirks and giggles. When he breaks the fourth wall, which is often (more of that hyper-meta business), he's approachable, not manic like some would be. He places his winks and side jabs with thought; the precision of comedy is the most scientific of an actor's skills. He will probably settle into the ringleader role as the run continues, but he looked pretty comfortable on opening night.
Scott Kaitanowski, as detective Bertoczynski, and Jack Agugliaro, as the chief of police, are fantastic wise guys. Kaitanowski merges a neurotic Joe Pesci with a stoic Harvey Keitel, while Augugliaro brings an annoyingly charming Woody Allen. They are both great counterparts to Fuller's decidedly satirical edge.
The piece works well, and though the second act falls flat in the laughs, it posits an important question: when the fight for justice and transparency gets so bloody that it blurs the lines of democracy, who's the hypocrite?
"The Accidental Death of an Anarchist"
3.5 stars out of 4
Presented by Subversive Theatre through Sept. 29 in the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave. 408-0499. www.subversivetheatre.org. Tickets are $15-$20.