A Comedy with Claws

From The Stranger– by BRENDAN KILEY

A Comedy with Claws

Accidental Death of an Anarchist was first staged in 1970, but it is still depressingly relevant. Italian playwright Dario Fo based this farce about police brutality, civil unrest, and the surveillance state on a real-life scandal: In 1969, an anarchist activist “fell” from the fourth story of a police building in Milan after an illegally long three-day interrogation about a bombing that killed 17 people and wounded 88. (They got the wrong guy: In 2001, three Italian neofascists were convicted of the explosion, and a fourth defendant, a suspected CIA informant, got immunity after becoming a witness for the state.) The courts declared the death of the anarchist, Giuseppe Pinelli, an “accident.”

An accident? He may have jumped, he may have been pushed—but an accident? In what mad world does a radical leftist activist, at the end of an illegal three-day police interrogation over a crime he did not commit, “accidentally” fall out of a window and smash his brains on the pavement? Fo’s answer in 1970: The kind of world where “anarchist” is synonymous with “scapegoat,” where police chronically use excessive force and doctor reports to cover up bungling, where a surveillance state harasses people for their political beliefs instead of actual crimes, and where the shady activity of a wealthy few triggers an economic collapse that damages the lives of millions yet nobody responsible suffers any penalty.

Ring any bells?

Accidental Death is didactic, but it’s also very funny in all kinds of ways: slapstick funny, pointed-satire funny, rapid-repartee funny. Director Gabriel Baron is an actor who specializes in the clownish side of theater. Baron won a Stranger Genius Award in 2005 and said in his accompanying profile article that he “agree[s] wholeheartedly with the Fo thesis that any serious matter is best accepted by the audience when it’s accompanied by laughter.” This is the second time he has directed Accidental Death in Seattle.

The play opens on the third floor of a Milan police building, one story beneath the fatal fall and a few weeks afterward. The stylized set designed by Greg Carter stacks overflowing filing cabinets on overflowing filing cabinets for an effect of haphazard bureaucracy that sloppily administers its powers of life and death.

An exhausted and exasperated police inspector (Galen Joseph Osier) is questioning a character called the Maniac (zestily played by Ryan Higgins) who specializes in compulsive impersonations. The Maniac has been arrested for impersonating a psychiatrist, but he talks farcical circles around the poor inspector and threatens to throw himself out of the window for fun. “What is this?” the Maniac asks. “The third floor? Well, it’s almost standard practice. I’ll jump! And when I’m lying down there splattered all over the pavement, groaning and dying—and I take a long time to die—I’ll tell the reporters it was you! Inspector Bertozzo did it!”

Eventually, the Maniac secretly grabs hold of a police file about the death of the anarchist and decides to impersonate a judge, saunter up to the fourth-floor office where the anarchist was defenestrated, and pretend to reopen the inquiry about the death. Within minutes, he is toying with two hard-ass cops who are used to intimidating people and cracking skulls (Timothy Hyland and MJ Sieber) and one dumb-ass cop who just wants to be loved (Jason Harber).

Hyland’s cop is a tall, burly, street-tough bruiser. Sieber’s police superintendent is a ’70s-dressed, coke-amplified bully straight out of Starsky & Hutch. Harber’s long- mustached junior officer is more of a Keystone Kop. It’s pure broad-comedy joy to watch Higgins gambol around the stage while his character’s wit twists these brawny archetypes into knots. By the end of the first act, they’re digging through their heavily rewritten police reports (“Where’s the first second version?”), arguing over which of their lies would work better in court, and singing Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” just to please the fake judge.

The comedy’s claws come out toward the end, when a reporter (a no-nonsense Rhonda J Soikowski) shows up to interview the cops. Incorporating her into his plot, the Maniac soon has the officers at his total—total—physical and psychological mercy.

“Justice must be administered openly in the courts,” the journalist protests when things get nasty. “You kill them, and you’re no better than they are. You merely demonstrate your ultra-left contempt for democracy.”

“What kind of democracy requires the services of pieces of shit like these?” the Maniac asks. “I’ll tell you. One that’s merely a hallucination. The men who wield the power invent the rules and insist we all play along while breaking the rules behind closed doors.”

It is difficult to say what happens next. After an hour and a half of playful fun, Fo hurls the satire directly at his audience’s face. The play’s final question, which is left to the reporter (and us) to answer, has a bitter aftertaste that lingers for days—and decades.

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