Accidental Death of an Anarchist Yale Repertory Theatre
Eugene Ma (Constables), Steven Epp (Maniac), Allen Gilmore (Pissani), and Liam Craig (Superintendent) take center stage at Berkeley Rep in Dario Fo’s classic comedy, Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Photo: Joan Marcus

The 1970 absurdist farce, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, is the most internationally recognized play by the 1997 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Dario Fo (Italian, born in 1926) “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.”

Considered a classic of 20th-century theater, Accidental Death of an Anarchist has been performed in more than 40 countries, including Argentina, Chile, China, India, Pakistan, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, and Zimbabwe — all places in which provocative theater could be used as a revolutionary medium.

Based upon a cross between commedia dell’arte and the Marx Brothers, this production is by the creative team of comic genius Steven Epp and inventive director Christopher Bayes, who presented to Berkeley Rep the ridiculous A Doctor in Spite of Himself in 2012.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist Yale Repertory Theatre
Comic actor Steven Epp stars as the Maniac in Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Photo: Joan Marcus

Others in the superlative cast are Jesse J. Perez, as the hot-blooded Police Inspector Berozzo, the Constable, acted by funny Eugene Ma (who looks as if he stepped out of a Laurel and Hardy film), Allen Gilmore, as the carefree dolt, Inspector Pizzani,  Liam Craig, as the ever exasperated Superintendent and Renata Friedman as the journalist, Felett

Although fictional, the play based on the actual events of an Italian railroad worker and part-time anarchist, Giuseppe Pinelli, who fell, or was thrown, to his death from the fourth floor window of a Milan police station in 1969. Accused of a bank bombing, Pinelli was eventually cleared of the charge, albeit too late to benefit him.

The play, translated by Gillian Hanna and adapted by Gavin Richards, opens as a character called “The Maniac” (Steven Epp) invades the first floor of the police station to prove the guilt of the corrupt police in Pinelli’s death. The Maniac persistently outsmarts the foolish Inspector Bertozzo. When Bertozzo leaves the room, The Maniac intercepts a phone call from Inspector Pissani, who reports that a judge is about to investigate the interrogation and death of the anarchist.

The Maniac impersonates the judge and has the police re-enact the events in the actual fourth floor room from which the anarchist was defenestrated. Here we see a creative and charming piece of staging by Kate Noll in which the backdrop slides to move the action from the first to the fourth floor. The clever conclusion of the play allows the audience members to choose from two possible endings.

Although the opening night audience laughed aloud during both acts of the play, the first act’s drawn-out farcical slapstick, fake accents, phony walks, silly wigs, and staged fights left me wishing for a bit more substance.

This was provided in the second act with, among other things, Epp’s scattershot diatribe that begins with “the Bush-Cheney Weapons of Mass Destruction Desert F#?king Storm of Lies and Deception” and ends with “why I can’t download health insurance, but the NSA can watch my Netflix for free.” When Epp breaks the fourth wall with his adroit and modern asides, it only partially makes up for the play’s overused slapstick and shtick.

The conventional devise of the crazy person being the only sane person among the mad is refreshingly employed here. This production of the “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” is elevated from theatrical obsolescence by Steven Epp’s imagination, inexhaustibility and seduction of the audience.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre, is playing at Berkeley Rep through April 20, 2014.

For information and tickets, visit the Berkeley Rep online.

Check out Berkeleyside’s event calendar for many more events, and make sure to post your community happenings there too.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...