Fee fie fo fum, Dario is No. 1 Theater: Dario Fo has won the Nobel Prize for literature, to the horror of the establishment. After all, he's been holding it up to ridicule for years.

October 19, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If Italian playwright Dario Fo had opened the New York Times last week to read the announcement of his Nobel Prize in literature, he would have gotten a chuckle. Irony was written all over the page.

Right next to the Nobel news, which had been greeted with "guarded amazement" and "outright dismay" by the Vatican, was an article headlined "Italian Government Falls." Accompanying it was a big photograph of the prime minister da giorno, Romano Prodi, with the face of a man who has just eaten 16 dill pickles and is feeling the backlash.

The juxtaposition was delicious.

Fo has been an implacable enemy of the establishment -- political, religious, cultural and mass media -- for more than 30 years. And though none of Italy's 55 short-lived governments since World War II owes its collapse to him, they have all resented him -- a testament to the power of ridicule.

For all his popularity in Europe, Fo is relatively unknown in this country. Though his anarchic sensibility has taken root here in a host of street-theater troupes, performance artists, cabaret satirists and visionary oddballs, he's not been much in evidence in mainstream American theater.

In Baltimore, though the Theatre Project presented Fo himself in his solo, "Mistero Buffo," and his wife, Franca Rame, in one of her monologues in 1986, none of his plays has had a major run. And Washington's Arena Stage has limited itself to a production of "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" in the 1983-1984 season.

So a lot of American theatergoers may be baffled by this year's Nobel award.

Fo represents a kind of political theater that's in short supply in the United States: less concerned with votes and polls than with genuine issues.

Politics as we practice it is largely concerned with vote-getting. For all our loud proclamations of our distrust of authority, Americans rarely address the questions of class and race and economics that divide us, preferring one-liners about people who run for office.

The closest we have come to real political theater may be the spotlight routines of Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce, the quick-hit wit of the Capitol Steps, the news-in-revue of "That Was the Week That Was," which had a brief television run in the '60s. One-liners are all very well, but they have a short shelf life.

"We're afraid of politics, which is a legacy of McCarthyism," says Joan Holden, a charter member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and a leading American translator of Fo's work. "We don't have a historical perspective -- it's something Americans are famous for."

Fo, on the other hand, has written some 70 plays explicitly about the issues of class, race and economic division that lie behind the news. Though he takes his ideas straight off the headlines, he doesn't stop there. As Italy's combination court jester and gadfly, he has refused to let the news media dictate the worth of a story and become a keeper of the public memory. No wonder he discomfits the government, the clergy and other pillars of the establishment.

He began as a television writer of sitcoms, until a sketch about a labor issue got him fired in 1962. He and Rame, his professional collaborator as well as his wife, then founded a theater collective called Il Comune in Milan.

What brought him international recognition was an event in December 1969. During a period of labor and student unrest, a bomb went off in the Agricultural Bank in Milan, killing 16 people. A known anarchist, a railway worker named Giovanni Pinelli, was arrested. During his interrogation, he left police headquarters via a fourth-floor window. The government called his defenestration an accident, and out of the newspaper accounts Fo wrote a political farce, "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" (1970), that's now his best-known work.

Farce on the stage is traditionally domestic: Feydeau's couples teetering on the edge of adultery and Joe Orton's dark parodies of their lust and greed. Political content? Forget it. Managing the mechanics of all those beds and doors and forgotten umbrellas is hard enough without throwing in politics.

"A good farce is hard to come by, and a good political farce is almost impossible," says Richard Seyd, associate artistic director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, who has directed award-winning productions of both "Noises Off," a traditional farce, and Fo's "About Face."

Strange, funny bedfellows

With "Accidental Death," Fo figured out how to turn farce and politics into strange and extremely funny bedfellows. He fused the events of Pinelli's death with a plot device from Gogol's "The Inspector-General": The investigating judge is a madman in disguise. Under pressure from this incorruptible jurist, the police re-enact the anarchist's interrogation, rewriting the official report again and again until it comes out that the bomb was planted by a police agent to discredit leftist agitators.

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