Serious clowning has been the means through which Italian playwright Dario Fo makes political comments about contemporary society. Proof that Fo's goofy plays are themselves taken seriously came when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997. You can laugh yourself to the same conclusion by watching "Abducting Diana" at Vagabond Players.
This near-surreal comedy is characteristic of Fo's work in a less fortunate way as well, because the playwright often ventures from silly into just plain stupid. The play also embodies his tendency to be so thematically blunt that you can't possibly miss the points he's scoring against his various social targets.
Fo's best play, for instance, "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," is a scathingly blunt attack on police corruption that has been staged in our region at theaters including Arena Stage, in Washington, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in Catonsville.
Although "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" impressively demonstrates that the playwright knows how to construct a play with clockwork precision, "Abducting Diana" unfortunately serves as a reminder that Fo's writing often seems of variable quality for a playwright of his stature.
The bad jokes nearly outnumber the good ones in this play, and the plotting has a "tossed together" quality.
It's not necessarily a liability that the written dialogue in a Fo play has its ups and downs, however, because his writing really only comes alive in performance. Fo's approach is inspired by the commedia dell'arte tradition, in which physical gestures mean as much as words.
Extroverted performances can transform a so-so script into a hilarious evening. My observation is based on having seen Fo and his wife, Franca Rame, perform in a couple of his other plays during a visit to Baltimore in 1980.
The clowning in the Vagabond Players' production of "Abducting Diana," directed by Michael Spellman, would benefit from sharper comic timing in places. After all, slapstick generally works best when it's fast and furious.
The Vagabond cast is still too self-conscious about delivering its lines and engaging in the many pratfalls. It's likely that with more Italian commedia dell'arte seasoning they'll be cutting loose with more madcap glee by the end of the run.
There's certainly enough crazy material in the play to inspire performers to cut loose. The title character, Diana (Andrea Bush), is a powerful female media tycoon who has arranged to meet a younger male employee (Mike Rosscoe) for what apparently is meant to be a romantic fling in an apartment undergoing renovation.
One has to use the word "apparently" a lot in discussing this play, because Fo is deliberately rather slippery in terms of characters' motivations and even their names.
Without spoiling any plot twists beyond what the playbill cast list already suggests, it's safe to relate that the secret romantic date will be interrupted by three unnamed kidnappers (Brian Douglas, Tim Craighead and Frank Vince). Also popping up for reasons you can discover on your own are Diana's mother (Lucy Poirier) and a priest (Daniel Douek).
Although the proceedings sometimes seem wild for the sake of being wild, the playwright strategically pokes fun at how greed operates in a celebrity-obsessed, mass media-saturated society.
The English-language adaptation of Fo's play by Stephen Stenning places the action in suburban Washington, and the hit-or-miss topical references more or less bring Fo's message home. This play holds your attention, even if you're not literally held as captive as Diana.
"Abducting Diana" runs through June 26 at Vagabond Players, at 806 S. Broadway, in Fells Point. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call 410-563-9135.