KPBS AIRDATE: October 1, 1997
The timing is impeccable. On the heels of the 20th anniversary of the poorly explained death of Steven Biko, hero of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and in the shadow of last month’s sexually assaulting police brutality of New York’s finest, the San Diego State University Drama Department has mounted “Accidental Death of an Anarchist.” Dario Fo’s 1970 political satire exposes, often very humorously, the corruption, oppression and incompetence of law enforcement officers. Fo’s play was inspired by a 1969 bombing incident in Italy, but it could be here; it could be anywhere: Soweto, NY. L.A. Even San Diego. The billy-club beat goes on.
In the play, part political treatise, part courtroom drama, part Keystone Kops, a maniacal master of disguises maneuvers his way into a police station. Before long, he has become a professor of psychiatry, an Elvis impersonator, a Scottish Highlander, John Wayne, and ultimately, an oddly Southern-accented chief investigator who puts the Constable, the Inspector and the Superintendent on trial for the death of a revolutionary who fell inexplicably from a fourth story window while in police custody.
This was a spectacular vehicle for playwright Fo, an agile mime and improviser. The central character requires an actor of great versatility, and SDSU has found the perfect guy in Nick Spear, a chameleon who effortlessly jumps in and out of the action — not to mention multiple disguises and accents. He is surrounded by a delightfully minimalist set and wonderfully stylized whiteface makeup painted onto on a pretty strong supporting cast which highlights the humor and updates the politics with references to Tienanmen Square, Steve Biko and Rodney King. Of course, most of these heinous acts occurred after the play was written, but no matter. Director Peter Larlham has certainly maintained the spirit of the piece, which unfortunately gets more preachy and more muddled in the second act, and drags in the requisite female journalist who is a rather un-PC, unsympathetic and unconvincing character.
Speaking of misogyny, an early David Mamet play is getting a very respectable airing courtesy of Alien Stage Project. “Edmond,” a provocative but repetitive and also preachy 1982 piece, is well paired with a brief Mamet skit, “Australia,” as opener. Both concern men gone amok, and guess who gets the shaft, or the knife? Women are mere accessories in Mametland, either banished altogether or limited to the roles of sex object or punching bag. As the playwright himself put it, not long after he wrote “Edmond,” “Women have, in men’s minds, such a low place on the social ladder in this country that it’s useless to define yourself in terms of a woman. What men need is men’s approval.”
Edmond is an unhappily married man who goes off into the cold, cruel night and encounters the slime beneath many big-city rocks. Obsessively seeking connection, solace and sex, he spends many of his 23 short scenes getting bogged down in the boring financial details of procuring sex. He finally gets it free, but feels compelled to demean and brutalize his newfound mate nonetheless. Ultimately, he meets his own brutal destiny, or at least he spends the last few, plodding minutes of the play discussing destiny, before he settles down to a “safe” life with the much-desired men’s approval.
It isn’t a pretty piece; it manages, as many Mamet plays do, to leave you feeling both angry and misanthropic. This is no place for lily-livered Pollyannas. But if this is the kind of bleak, rank worldview you covet in the theater, then Michael Hemmingson’s well-orchestrated production will leave an appropriately bitter taste in your mouth. Jeremy Shepard does a fine job as the nasty title character, and the rest of the cast supports him well, with standout performances, in multiple roles, by Jeannine Torres and Donnell Wesley. You get to choose this week, whether you want your societal commentary served up with candy corn or with arsenic.
I’m Pat Launer for KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.