ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST
New Crime Productions
at Chicago Actors Ensemble
What is an anarchist? Does the term apply only to someone who propounds a specific political theory, or can it describe any person who in action, words, or thought defies the established order of a society? If an antigovernment leftist blows up a bank, does that make him an anarchist? Yes, probably. But if the bombing is actually the work of a fascist who wants the public to blame leftists, does that make the fascist an anarchist, or a crusader? And if the policemen interrogating a suspected bomber get carried away and "accidentally" toss their subject out a window to his death, does that make them anarchists too? Or only overzealous in doing their jobs?
One doesn't need to stick to such extreme examples to consider the question. In Dario Fo's 1970 satire Accidental Death of an Anarchist the attempt by law-enforcement officers to cover up a case of deadly police brutality is the starting point for a consideration of anarchy in less violent contexts; the updated production concocted by New Crime Productions pointedly emphasizes that while specific political conditions may vary from country to country and year to year, the conflict between persons with anarchic tendencies and persons with fascist tendencies--a line that can get blurred--is universal. Today, an antiwar demonstrator who clogs street traffic to draw attention to his point might be considered an anarchist--or a 14-year-old who refuses to accede to his teacher's demand that he alter the antiwar sentiments in a letter he typed for typing class (and gets an F because of it--see Richard Roeper's Sun-Times column of February 25). Others might describe as an anarchist the typing teacher who tosses the student an F--or a leader who deliberately uses insult and distortion to escalate a diplomatically solvable situation into a violent one. Next to these folks, that chaotic clown Harpo Marx was a model of restraint.
Fo's play was written when Italy frequently seemed close to collapsing under its own political instability, as communists and conservatives battled for control of the government. His story, in which the police try to convince the press and public that the anarchist is responsible for his own death, has striking parallels beyond Italian politics. Close to home, one recalls the efforts of State's Attorney Ed Hanrahan to depict his officers' slaughter of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark as self-defense--until television journalists highlighted evidence from the death scene that made that explanation untenable. That was a different era, though, when the public supported the media's responsibility to question the official versions of such events.
New Crime's high-energy staging of the play uses an uncredited adaptation by Richard Nelson that was mounted on Broadway in 1984 featuring Jonathan Pryce and Patti LuPone. Nelson's version was updated to the Reagan 80s and peppered with references to things like Reagan's cuts in funding for the arts and mental health. New Crime's version is updated yet again, and includes comments about George Bush's "new world order" and "Operation Just Cause." Already, some of it seems out-of-date; a play like this can stand continual revision, as those in authority come up with new twists on the old scams.
The show opens with a video collage of clips from that manipulative infotainment blitz known as news coverage of the Persian Gulf. The barrage of screen images sets up the artificiality of the stage action to come, the production's metaphor for the theater of politics--where what counts is how things look to the audience, not how they really are backstage, where the deteriorating sets and costumes and actors' health are apparent.
Director Steve Pink's physically precise staging (created with input from executive producer John Cusack) is played to the hyperactive hilt by a terrific nine-person cast that goes for total theatricality. Like other New Crime productions, it fuses the clownish physicality and emotionality of commedia dell'arte with World War I-era German expressionism, with its skewed angles and dark, brooding atmosphere of paranoia. Nothing is "real"; the actors wear masklike whiteface and play to the audience; every slapstick gesture is boisterously accompanied by a drum rimshot or a fiddle screech from the superbly alert offstage band (bassist Dennis C. Nye, violinist Alleyne Hoyt, and percussionist Max Shapiro share composing credit for the Loony Tunes-goes-punk score). Bill Cusack and Cynthia Hamilton's set is a wonderfully evocative office right out of an old police movie, changing colors with a nightmarish flourish in response to Larry Neumann Jr.'s bold lighting. The window that the dead anarchist "fell" from--or jumped from on his own, according to the explanation force-fed the media by the buffoonish police chief--is jarringly out of perspective with the rest of the set, as in a child's drawing; the cityscape outside the window is wonderfully absurd.
So is the marvelous lead performance of Greg Sporleder as the mad Fool who, after being arrested for impersonating a psychiatrist, turns the tables on his captors and pretends to be a high-ranking judge investigating the anarchist's death. ("I would never be a lawyer," crows the Fool. "I don't like to defend people; that's a passive occupation.") Tall and gangly, with manically bulging red eyes and a puppetlike body that seems to move three ways at once, Sporleder's Harlequin--the sassy and subversive clown who undermines his stupid superiors--suggests both Dwight Frye's insane Renfield in Dracula and Danny Kaye as the make-believe official in The Government Inspector, whose plot is echoed in Fo's satire of the hypocrisy and gullibility of people in power. Sporleder is ably supported by Bill Cusack as the smug police chief, David Sinaiko as an apoplectic lower-echelon officer, and Chris Reed, sporting a sout'west-side accent as a preening macho cop (the equivalent of the bragging military officer in the commedia dell'arte scenarios). Polly Noonan, employing the commedia archetype of the vain, whiny ingenue, is the aggressive reporter who tries to get the real story of the coverup but gets wrapped up in simpleminded scandalmongering. Working together with both remarkable physical control and unfettered playfulness, the actors keep things moving at a mostly uproarious pace; politics aside, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is just plain fun. But the unflagging sense of method in Sporleder's madness and the savage satire of Fo's unsubtle script always keep the audience aware of the horror as well as the humor in the play--and of the realities reflected in its lampooning.