Fo-pas: Laughing (or not) through Accidental Death

Accidental Death of an Anarchist.Yale Repertory Theatre.
Comic actor Steven Epp stars as Maniac at Berkeley Rep in Dario Fo’s comedy Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Below: The predominantly male cast includes (from left) Eugene Ma (Constables), Epp (Maniac), Allen Gilmore (Pissani) and Liam Craig (Superintendent). Photos by Joan Marcus

Maybe you have to be in the right mood for a satirically slapstick political farce. I can tell you I was definitely in no mood for satirically slapstick political farce – not that I knew that when I sat down to watch the Berkeley Repertory Theatre/Yale Repertory Theatre production of Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo.

The last time director Christopher Bayes and his merry band of clowns came to Berkeley Rep – two years ago with Molière’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself (read my review here), I was thoroughly delighted by the expertly calibrated zaniness. Now, with many of the same actors working just as expertly, I barely cracked a smile during the show’s two-plus hours.

To be sure, the play is about an hour too long, and there is one nearly funny joke in Act 2 when Allen Gilmore stops being a police inspector long enough to show off his stand-up comedy skills. At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, he recounted the one about two whales who go into a bar. The joke was funny until it wasn’t, a victim of being protracted and pushed too hard.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist.Yale Repertory Theatre.

The off-putting thing about this Anarchist is that I could see funny happening. Other audience members found much to laugh at, and certainly the comic machinery seemed to be working well. Steven Epp, who starred in the Molière, is back as Maniac, a certifiable lunatic who, like the pretend doctor of last time, is masquerading as a judge and as a forensics expert in the wake of an Italian police scandal involving the questionable death of an anarchist brought in for questioning. Did he jump from the fourth-story window, or was he pushed?

It makes sense that a farce about the inevitable abuse of power (at whatever level) would, in itself, be rather anarchic, with actors breaching the fourth wall, bringing contemporary references to a period piece (the action is set in the early ’70s) and breaking into song often and with great gusto. But it’s exhausting, especially if you’re not keyed in to the funny.

The ensemble, which also includes Liam Craig, Eugene Ma, Jesse J. Perez, Renata Friedman (the lone woman, and it’s such a shame she doesn’t have more to do) and musicians Aaron Halva (also music director and co-composer with Nathan A. Roberts) and Travis Hendrix, works so darn hard. I only wish their efforts had made me laugh.

Perhaps it’s the play, which in itself is repetitive and slow going as the Maniac grills the police about what really went down the night the anarchist died. But the self-aware dramatics are tricked out with all kinds of asides and songs and routines that conjure the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers. In Act 2, Epp does away with the pretense of the play entirely and simply rails against abuses of power, with most of his vitriol saved for Bush’s “Mission Accomplished!”/weapons of mass destruction debacle.

Aside from Friedman’s turn as an enterprising journalist, this aside is the best part of the play, and the funny thing about it is that there’s nothing really funny about it at all.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Christopher Bayes about Epp and Anarchist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist continues through at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are 29-$99$. Call 510-647-2949 or visit

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