Richard Hamburger

Captive’s audience

Anti-terrorism campaign adds new resonance to Nobel winner’s political farce

By Tom Sime / The Dallas Morning News

In 1969, a suspected terrorist bomber in Milan fell to his death from a fourth-floor window during a police interrogation. At first the Italian police denied it had happened at all. Then they called it a suicide.

No one ever proved exactly what happened on the other side of that fourth-floor window. But Italian playwright and provocateur Dario Fo has made sure we never forget the mystery with his ferocious farce Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which has kept the case in the news – and audiences laughing – for more than 30 years.

The comedy by Mr. Fo, whose 1997 Nobel Prize made him more controversial than ever, returns to Dallas for the first time in many years when the Dallas Theater Center begins previews on Wednesday. The show is a co-production with Pittsburgh Public Theatre and will move there in March.

Artistic director Richard Hamburger, who’s directing, calls this a “propitious” time to revisit the comedy by Mr. Fo, who at 77 continues to provoke Italian conservatives with his mocking satires, co-created with his wife, Franca Rame.

“I think it’s an extremely timely play,” Mr. Hamburger says. “This is a time when we’re all wondering where our country is headed, with things like the Patriot Act. We’re wondering about the extent that authority has over our personal liberties, and this is a play that gets into all of that.”

The alleged anarchist is dead when the play begins. As the police try to explain what happened, an interloper, the Maniac, invades the station with his own agenda to get to the bottom of things. He impersonates various participants and directs re-enactments of the various explanations for the “fall,” scenarios of wildly varying credibility.

Robert Dorfman, previously seen at the Theater Center in A Christmas Carol, Room Service and Dark Rapture, plays the Maniac, the role originally performed by Mr. Fo himself.

“I like to call myself a faux Dario Fo,” he jokes.

Many different versions of Anarchist are out there, some with different endings devised by Mr. Fo over the years. The Theater Center is presenting the world premiere of a new adaptation commissioned from Mr. Fo’s longtime translator, Ron Jenkins.

Mr. Hamburger has never directed Fo before, and has been wanting to do Anarchist for years. But the rights have been tied up in the United States ever since a failed, star-studded 1984 Broadway production with Jonathan Pryce, Bill Irwin and Patti Lupone in the cast.

The director resisted the temptation to move the setting to the United States.

“You can update it in some ways – take what happened in 1970, a real case, and place it in an American police station, hypothetically,” says Mr. Hamburger. “But what we’ve chosen to do is to go back to the original as much as possible. ... It is a real case. A real guy died.”

Retaining the original time and setting “allows that little bit of distance that people need to look at themselves,” he continues. “Because you see, 30 years have passed, and dare I say, things like [imprisonment of suspected terrorists at] Guantánamo Bay exist. This is someone who was held beyond the legal limit, and no one knows what happened. ... This is an eternal problem, and we’re asking a lot of questions right now about that.”

Out of the comfort zone Richard Hamburger knows he’ll be ruffling some political sensibilities with Dario Fo’s left-leaning comedy Accidental Death of an Anarchist. But he’s ready to dive out of the kitchen sink and into the fire.

“I’ve always believed that political theater and poetic theater are not often supported in this country,” he says. “We tend to like what I call extended-conversation plays. ...They purposefully create a sense of charm and security for people to feel comforted by. A theater that doesn’t get into politics and poetry isn’t really alive in its time, isn’t a living theater.”

That said, he’s too immersed in the nuts and bolts of directing to anticipate audience reaction. “You get so enmeshed in trying to make it good.... I leave it up to the audience to respond whichever way they will.”

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