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
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,
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.
www.berkeleydaily.org | originally published: Sept 20, 2002
Original article on the web at