With goofy songs and the sarcasm of a previous age, Berkeley Rep's Accidental Death of an Anarchist brings out the shears.
Splicing bureaucratic flab with comedic derision, playwright Dario Fo's farce rips every tickle and terrible truth from the real life story of a 1969 bombing in Italy. Christopher Bayes directs his fabulous cast through the furiously physical play, which is paced like an automated tennis ball machine gone haywire.
The actual "anarchist" accused of the heinous act "fell" from a fourth-story police station window while undergoing interrogation. The play's first staging in 1970 was a daring deed: Fo's satire — the play's fiercely barbed humor targets police corruption as the true cause of the suspect's death — exposed the Nobel Prize-winning playwright to repercussions from pro-fascist forces. Nothing as serious is at stake on the Berkeley stage, despite improvisational tidbits of America's ongoing preoccupation with terrorism that are interjected into the script's historical mix.
Anarchist unfolds its twisted tale when a Maniac (the pliant, astoundingly engaging Steven Epp) is brought to the Milan police station. Accused of false impersonations, he learns of an internal investigation into the accused bomber's "fall." Left alone in the offices of various bumbling bureaucrats, the Maniac slips opportunistically into the role of investigator and judge. A sloppy superintendent (bullish Liam Craig), a deranged inspector (facial gymnast Allen Gilmore), and a doughnut-minded, do-nothing constable (subtle scene-stealer Eugene Ma) are all it takes to deliver the true facts. Their ineptitude is exposed and — in Act II's staccato climax — the Maniac condemns them and the entire criminal justice system to a life sentence.
Leaving no stone unturned, the production even points the accusatory finger at itself, with a lone female character (a journalist portrayed with devilish determination by Renata Friedman) asking why there's just one role for a woman. And then it's the audience's turn, in the play's final lines: "What are you going to do? Really, what are you going to do?"
The ricocheting jokes — from commedia dell'arté clowning to 10-second snippets of musical theater classics like The Sound of Music to references to Groucho Marx and Mitt Romney and Dianne Feinstein — suggest Bayes had a typical line from the play in mind while directing: "Remember the three B's — brisk, buoyant, and fast." When the Maniac eventually slams on the comedic brakes in a second act rant, it's beyond whiplash.
Unfortunately, perhaps because the play's outrage is co-opted from another country, the cliffhanger moment is oddly diminished. When seen through the cynical, 21st-century eyes of the War on Terror generation, it's impossible to resist thinking Anarchist's central political protest once had more bite to its bark.
But that's not because Epp, who delivers the bulk of the play's sermonizing, and the cast aren't impressive. Epp bundles shades of Steve Martin, pretentious arts supporters, and real and imagined Nazis, into one well-defined character, packing each comedic crevice with dark aggression. And the ensemble, given 20 seconds, makes an audience laugh. Parading in front of coffee-can footlights and cleverly costumed in god-awful, too-short pants, the cast delivers a memorable performance.