Saturday, September 13, 2008

That 70s show

Imagine The Honeymooners crossed with Das Kapital - with running crossfire from the Vatican and Dr. Ruth - and you've roughly got the vibe of We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!(at left), the 1972 Dario Fo farce being revived by the Nora Theatre at their spanking-new Central Square digs. It's easy to see why the Nora feels it's time to revisit Fo's second-best-known play (after Accidental Death of an Anarchist): prices are spiralling upward, the financial system is edging toward collapse, and there's a palpable sense that the country is "on the wrong track." As someone once said, history may not repeat itself, but it does like to rhyme - and something of the dark, anarchistic edge of the 70's has begun to creep into the popular mood.

Still, before we get that party started, it has to be admitted that any production of We Won't Pay! faces several dilemmas. The first is that the play is essentially a premise designed to frame Fo's riffs on capitalism and sex; those who grumbled at his Nobel had a point, I'm afraid: as "literature" per se, with all the sense of structure and development that term entails, his plays barely exist. What's more, the show is also tailored to the stage chemistry of Fo and his talented wife, Franca Rame, its original performers, and their political bickering is very much of its time and place (as the work of any commedia artist should be) - that is, early-70s-Italy, with its hothouse atmosphere of strikes and hyperinflation, not to mention sexist passion curbed by Catholic repression. And it's hard to see exactly how to update these tropes; the left has never offered a convincing response to globalization's attack on the "working class," and these days sexual repression is better handled by the Protestants than the Pope. The result is that We Won't Pay! feels less like a call to arms than a touching piece of nostalgia: watching it, we're moved to recall the good old days when there was actually an operative critique of the ravages of the Christian Right.

That the Nora partially succeeds against these long odds is a largely a tribute to its hard-working cast. They may not have Fo in the lead role, but they've got Scott H. Severance, and that's almost as good; Severance has that rare combination of broad affect and physical precision that catapulted Jackie Gleason to stardom, and he almost makes you forget that much of this schtick is fairly forced, and there's not always enough plot to get us from Political Point A to Point B. He's nearly matched by Stephanie Clayman, channeling Anna Magnani as his long-suffering wife, who sets her own "prices" at the grocery store, and then spends the rest of the play trying to dispose of the stolen goods (usually stuffing them up her dress in one "pregnancy" after another; hilarity does not always ensue). Clayman gets able, ditzy back-up from Elise Audrey Manning (whose wispy hymn to "Saint Eulalia" is a highlight); Severance isn't as lucky with his cohort in crime, Robert Najarian, who has a pleasant presence, but never seems to figure out how to peel the role of this second banana. There's an even bigger gap in the energy of Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, who never gives his various policemen enough attack (he's at his best in the contrasting role of an amusingly languid undertaker).

The new(ish) translation, by Fo specialist Ron Jenkins, is solid till the finish, when it puts one foot wrong by dragging in the L.A. riots (race doesn't really factor in the play). Meanwhile director Daniel Gidron keeps things moving, but doesn't always articulate his stage business to the farcical pitch required. And the physical production does not impress - the costumer (perhaps sensing those dilemmas I cited above) splits the difference between the contemporary North End (the leads) and something nearly Napoleonic (the police); and alas, the set just seems underdeveloped, and underdressed.

Still, there is that ominous sense of history's rhyme running under the production . . . If only we had our own Dario Fo, to respond to our current mix of war, sexual hypocrisy, fiscal irresponsibility, and rising prices! Now that's something I think we'd all pay for.

1 comment:

  1. I did get to see We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay! with some of your observations in mind.

    You're absolutely right that the references to the L.A. Riots are completely out of place in an American production since the play concerns itself with the abuses of capitalist economies and to a lesser extent the intersection of religious doctrine and the institutions of sexism-- while the L.A. Riots were over institutional racism and police violence. The 1999 "Battle of Seattle" protests against the World Trade Organization would have been a better and more timely update. It's been a while since I read Jenkins' translation, so I don't know if that's his mistep or that of the Nora Theatre creatives.

    The didacticism regarding police enforcement of a capitalist order might have been revelatory to liberals of the 1970s, but it's about as obvious to early 21st century liberals in New England as "Jesus Saves" is to Evangelical Protestants.

    Speaking of which-- the play wouldn't translate well out of its Catholic setting as it would mean losing some the most inspired verbal comedy regarding the Pope and the cult of Saint Eulalia would have been lost-- and while the tale doesn't accurately reflect the situation of more affluent American Catholics-- it does reflect the attitudes of Boston's more recent Catholic working-class immigrant communities-- the ones who probably won't pay for $32 tickets.

    Fo has written far more interesting plays than this and Jenkins has penned more interesting translations of Fo's plays-- and I would have liked to see some of the same cast attacking one of those texts instead.