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Review by Lisa Drostova for East Bay Express

Silliness and Slapstick

Dario Fo's commedia dell'arte: Don't try this at home.

I'm sure we've all thought about only paying what we wanted to for something, whether it's a car or our weekly groceries. Isn't that the whole idea behind and those silly William Shatner ads? But while most of us just dream of it, in Italy in the '70s, people actually did it. The movement was called autoriduzione, with people choosing to limit their work hours, their output, and what they paid for goods. It was a natural response for people tired of being "held hostage by a minimum-wage job," to quote a character of playwright Dario Fo's, people "hungry for dignity. Hungry for justice, for a chance." Fo and his writing partner and wife Franca Rame were deeply sensitive to the plight of the working class; the result was the 1974 premiere of We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!, a hilarious dig at trying to make ends meet in a world of plenty.

The story begins with a crime and swiftly grows silly, absurdity piling up on top of absurdity. The play opens with Antonia describing to her friend Margherita how women at the supermarket staged an impromptu protest against rising prices by "liberating" their groceries. Antonia's glee swiftly turns to consternation: Her husband Giovanni is a law-and-order sort of guy, and he's not going to like this one bit. Some of the purloined goods end up hidden in Margherita's coat, leading to a charade of pregnancy that gets truly out of hand and drives the rest of the play. There are cops to deal with (all played by the same actor, per Fo), a stray coffin, the vengeful Santa Eulalia, and Giovanni's "discovery" that fetuses in the womb float in pickle juice.

Fo, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997, is a modern disciple of commedia dell'arte, the 16th-century Italian theatrical form best known to American audiences for the creation of Harlequin (Arlecchino) and the introduction of the "slapstick," a paddle-like wooden device with a hinged piece that makes a sharp crack when swung, a vital prop for any self-respecting Arlecchino. Commedia's influence is subtle and wide-ranging -- we can see it in the work of performers such as the Marx Brothers and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, who started out playing commedia in the early '60s.

We Won't Pay bears the imprint of Fo's interest in commedia. The characters can be loosely identified by "mask" or type, especially Giovanni and Antonia. Antonia (Katja Rivera) and Giovanni (Clive Worsley, who hasn't had a chance to catch his breath after Troilus and Cressida) are exaggerated yet believable, with some really zany (another commedia contribution, from the word "zanni" for a certain type of character) mugging and scheming. Antonia's a lot smarter than Giovanni, but she mostly seems to use it to come up with outrageous stories. She manages to sucker poor Margherita (Andrea Day) into her crazy scheme and then sells it to Giovanni, Margherita's husband Luigi (Ian Petroni), and the State Trooper (Kevin Kelleher, who is hilarious as both cops and as Giovanni's father, but especially as the undertaker).

I thought the few asides were director Rebecca Novick's additions, but I was wrong: Fo had written them. The last monologue seemed unnecessary and didactic, and I assumed that it too had been tacked on, but evidently Fo isn't taking any chances on people not understanding the point he's trying to make. This is consistent with the bold, simplified world of commedia dell'arte, but sometimes consistency hobnobs with the hobgoblins.

---------------------------------------------- | originally published: September 25, 2002

Original article on the web at


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