Friday, September 5, 2008

Dario Fo's "We Won't Pay"... Lost in Translation?

Dario Fo is one of only a handful of dramatists to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, among other luminaries as Pinter, Beckett, Sartre, and Camus. His work, however, is less often seen on American stages save for the occasional academic production. The Nora Theatre Company's bold choice to open their 21st season with Fo's We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay! demonstrates why his work rarely jumps the pond. Whereas the Nora delivers as fine of a production as imaginable, the utter "Italianess" of the play simply doesn't translate to the American stage.

We Won't Pay! quite simply plays like an episode of The Honeymooners with an Italian accent and a political message. The story begins with Antonia and her friend Margherita carrying in bags of groceries that were looted from the local market. In a lengthy monologue, Antonia explains how the women of the village banded together and refused to pay the rising prices for food. However, she explains, her well-mannered, law-loving husband, Giovanni, would never approve of her actions which sets into motion their extensive plot to conceal the groceries from him. Their machinations extend into the ridiculous encompassing a fake pregnancy, a police sergeant and state trooper, and feeding her husband beef-flavored dog food and bird seed soup with rabbit head. As the patron sitting behind me most adeptly noted, "This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen."

Whether this statement was a compliment or a critique, I am unsure. However, ridicule is the very basis of satire and as the Nobel judges lauded, Dario Fo was granted the prize for "emulating the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden." On the surface, I was willing to dismiss the play as a comedic political satire with slapstick humor and pedantic speeches. But as I thought of Italy’s legacy of theatre, I began to see a historical and aesthetic connection with commedia del arte (arguably Italy’s greatest contribution to theatre). This genre, much like the repertory companies of yore, relied upon stock characters portrayed by actors who spent years developing their Lassi. I wonder if this play doesn’t suffer from the American LORT model of producing theatre and, like Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatre Company, depends upon stock actors portraying stock characters.

This isn’t to say that the actors of the Nora’s production were sub par. Scott H. Severance displays a very Jackie Gleason-esque quality in his over-the-top humor. Likewise, Elise Audrey Manning captures a nubile comedy of Margherita worthy of comparison to Joyce Randolph’s Trixie Norton. The directing of the show mostly panders to the lowest common denominator of humor including pantomiming lines and constant prat falls. There were a few moments where I found myself guffawing, most notably the physical comedy of Margherita’s “water” breaking which turns out to be pickle juice and olives and provides a literal landslide to Giovanni. Likewise, the pantomimed fetus transplant pantomimed with silverware by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman heralded laughter and applause from the audience.

Despite the mind-numbing humor and pedantic speeches, I think We Won’t Pay! is a brilliant choice for Nora’s inaugural season in the state-of-the-art blackbox that is the Central Square Theatre. As I left the play, surrounded by the homeless and downtrodden people that fill Central Square, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the themes of the play. What if these multitudes were to revolt against the current system of price-gouging of gas prices, Starbucks coffee, and Gap jeans as did the wives and workers of Dario Fo’s opus? Could social reform begin with these people in Central Square? It is either brilliance or serendipity that planted this play here. If the measure of a play is its ability to transform one’s view of the world, the Nora Theatre has proved themselves as socially-relevant theatre with We Won’t Pay!

No comments: