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Review by Robert Hall for Berkeley Daily Planet

Shotgun Players take on Dario Fo

In "Les Miserables" Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family and got in big trouble. In Dario Fo's "We Won't Pay, We Won't Pay," a contemporary housewife struggling to make ends meet helps ransack a grocery store, and gets in big trouble, too - but with a significant difference: "Les Miserables" is earnest, high-flown drama, while "We Won't Pay" is farce.

Victor Hugo attacked an oppressive social system by heading for the heartstrings, while Fo aims lower, at our bellies (as in belly-laughs).

Fo is George Bernard Shaw in a fright wig.

Fo penned the play during hard times in Italy, when starving workers were close to revolt. "Let us pay what we want for food, or we won't pay at all!" they demanded, and in that unstable atmosphere Fo got jailed for showing his work to a working class crowd. For Shotgun's version, director Rebecca Novick and her cast have moved its setting from Italy to Oakland, adding references to Kaiser Hospital and Ikea, along with jabs at contemporary issues like homeland security, global warming and downsizing, but bellies, empty and full, are still center stage, though they're not always what they seem.

The madness-with-a-method starts when that housewife, Antonia, bursts into her drab flat loaded with shopping bags. Gleefully she tells her friend Margherita how a mob of angry women fought food costs by making off with all they could snag.

"The store decided to raise prices?" she sniffs. "With whose permission?"

The battle lines are drawn.

But not so fast, trouble's ahead. Antonia is trying to figure out how to explain the sudden plenty to her husband, when a cop on a house-to-house search bangs on the door. The women panic, shoving most of the food under a bed, the rest under Margherita's jacket. Then Antonia's gift for lying sparks a string of looney misunderstandings when she insists to the cop that her friend isn't hiding food, she's pregnant.

Margherita's husband flips out at the news. It's the first he's heard of it.

Fo is famous as a daring provocateur who thumbs his nose at the system, but this Berkeley incarnation of "We Won"t Pay" feels tame. Because we're watching it in a town where activism of all kinds is daily bread? Because no one in the audience is likely out of a job or food? Whatever the reason, though the play's engine is cranked by hunger, once that engine starts ticking, it runs more on the fuel of farce than of social issues like joblessness. Not that we don't see Fo's intentions, but his play feels quaint, like a dissertation on a firebrand when that firebrand is history.

Removed from the clamoring streets, "We Won't Pay" dies a little.

Still, it's pretty wild stuff, and Shotgun's genial if not definitive production gets laughs. Katjah Rivera is the too-clever-for-her-own-good Antonia, Andrea Day is Margherita, who gets knocked around like a head of lettuce by a zealous bagger, and Ian Petroni is her credulous husband Luigi. Best in the cast are sharp, dependable Clive Worsley as Antonia's down-to-earth husband, Giovanni, and Kevin Kelleher, who keeps the spirit of Monty Python alive in several off-the-wall characters, from a subversive beat cop to a lugubrious undertaker.

But why is "We Won't Pay" at the bare-bones Eighth Street Studio rather than in Shotgun's long-promised new Allston Street Theater in the Gaia Building? Headman Patrick Dooley explains: "" we raised the money, we got the plans approved and now the developer doesn't have enough money to build out the rest of the space." The good news is that the delay is only a temporary, and Shotgun, which has survived much more, is sure to survive this.

------------------------- | originally published: Sept 20, 2002

Original article on the web at


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