Police Story

At the beginning of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Italian playwright Dario Fo's protest-farce, the right-wing policeman Bertozzo (Daniel Doohan) warns the audience that, this being a radical play, Fo will take every opportunity to make him and his colleagues look ridiculous. Fo delivers, and so does the company, My Fair Heathen, which is performing Gillian Hanna's updated and Americanized translation at the Kraine Theater. In a Milan precinct office, Bertozzo is cleaning up after the death of an anarchist who either committed suicide or accidentally fell from a fourth-floor window while being interrogated as a suspect in a bomb plot. Then the case is opened by the Maniac (Megan O'Leary), a 16-times-committed mental patient and brilliant improv actor who has been arrested and hauled in for impersonating a university professor.

The Maniac goes on to impersonate the judge and win control of the police force, and asks questions about the Anarchist's death that the police will not ask themselves. Ultimately, the Maniac's vigilante justice reaches its most extreme point, and he confronts the audience with a dreadful choice that will probably divide even the most idealistic of New York liberal audiences.

Fo mixes the horror with buffoonish comedy, and My Fair Heathen plays it with aplomb. The police consider the anarchists "usual suspects" while ignoring right wing and neo-Fascist crimes, and when they find that the anarchists are not in fact organized criminals, they claim that "their disorganization is a cunning facade."

As an oafish Constable, Matthew Wanders performs a dance of hysterical contortions when he gets his hand caught in a mousetrap, doesn't think to remove it, and waits for the senior Bertozzo to do so. When the Maniac coaxes a trio of cops into an impromptu yet perfect cover of the Bee Gees, it seems both effortlessly natural and completely bizarre.

As the Maniac, O'Leary is sufficiently maniacal, and delightfully hyper in contrast with the sluggish cops. Wanders's wacky facial expressions and Del Lewis's deliberately unfunny bullying as the Superintendent make those actors stand out in an already strong cast. As the straight man and sometime M.C. of the evening, Doohan's Bertozzo incites pity if not exactly empathy. As an investigative journalist, Gretchen Knapp contributes a sobering realism. The group slapstick moments are swift, slick, and zany, thanks to director Janet Bobcean's blocking.

In several meta-theatrical asides, the actors drop their roles and play themselves, arguing about the play's shape, delivery, and meaning despite the audience's presence. Someone blows not the Maniac's cover but that of the performer playing him, by declaring, "That woman is getting out of hand!" Even Fo himself does not escape the play's barbs, as O'Leary defends herself by calling the author "a sexist dinosaur," but "a brilliant sexist dinosaur."

A major difference between the Maniac and the bumbling policemen is that the Maniac can think for himself (or, perhaps, herself), asks good questions, and comes to his (or her) own conclusions about events and their meaning. The policemen lack reason, imagination, and courage. It is therefore odd that in one of the play's proscenium-breaking digressive asides, the Maniac explains to the audience, as a rote lesson, that the corruption in the Milan police office is also practiced by the Bush administration. To state this rather than allowing us to imagine and reason it out for ourselves is to treat us like idiots, or lemmings.

Overall, though, My Fair Heathen smoothly conjures "the laughter in the labyrinth" from Fo's scathing defenestration of his society's respectable bullies. The company's Anarchist is laugh-out-loud funny as well as chilling, and unfortunately speaks to our place and time as loudly and clearly as a cop car's siren.

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