Chaos and comedy collide in "Accidental Death of an Anarchist."
Dario Fo's classic political farce spins off real events. In 1969 Italy, a suspected terrorist was hauled in by the police. While being interrogated about a bank bombing in Milan, the man plunged to his death from a fourth-story window. Was it a suicide, an accident or a case of police brutality? The Nobel-winning Fo riffed on the incident in this laser-sharp satire on the death of civil rights, the rise of the rampant corruption and the need to overthrow the status quo. Directed with over-the-topical gusto by Christopher Bayes and adapted by Gavin Richards, this scattershot social parable may only be fitfully funny but it's political fire is undeniable.
"Anarchist" runs through April 20 at Berkeley Rep in a coproduction with Yale Rep.
Bayes and actor Steven Epp, the team behind the Rep's 2012 hit "A Doctor in Spite of Himself," are always drawn to the marriage of the wily and the wacky. If this self-consciously theatrical production spins its wheels in a draggy first act that unfolds like an endless comedy sketch, it takes hold in second as the shtick hits the fan with a vengeance. Lest we think that issues of the abuse of power and the distraction of the masses are more relevant to the past than the present, Bayes and Epp jam the revival full of timely references.
Chockablock with musical snippets ("The Sound of Music" anyone?), sight gags and slapstick, "Accidental" often feels like a wild and woolly bit of improvised lunacy. Indeed, many of the winks fall flat, such as mentions of Jude Law, Free Willy and Dianne Feinstein. To be fair, you have to give it up for anyone who can work "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Dancing with the Stars" into the same line of dialogue. Pop culture moves so fast these days that it's a blink between juicy and dated and all too often these interludes land with a thud. The obligatory local punch lines are even more forced.
That's a pity because this madcap romp demands both virtuosic comic chops and a sense of fearlessness. The ensemble gamely tries to dish up both, particularly Allen Gilmore as the demented inspector Pissani and Eugene Ma as a befuddled constable. Both actors also bravely toy with racial stereotypes to tickle the funny bone.
For his part, Epp ("The Miser," "Figaro") grounds the production as The Maniac, a cheeky clown of the commedia dell'arte tradition who is part Harlequin, part Homer Simpson and all zany. When he lands in the slammer, he decides to investigate the case of the dead anarchist to determine if it was fate or murder. He goes undercover as a judge in this kitschy police limbo that echoes everything from "Barney Miller" to Groucho Marx.
As the court jester of the criminal justice system, he's the only one who can see that a society cannot be free in the face of institutionalized thuggery. It is Epp's cagey maniac who delivers the show's theatrical sledgehammer in the second act. He exposes the corruption of it all to Feletti (a Fallaci-style journalist played with relish by Renata Friedman) with a heart-stopping sense of gravity that draws a palpable connection between Fo's world and our own.
The Maniac lets loose on an angry political rant that comes out of nowhere to shock us to the core. He rakes the audience over the coals about everything from drones and fracking to the inefficacy of voting in a gridlocked two-party system. It's a breathtaking deconstruction of the state of the nation that finally gives this farce some firepower.
By Dario Fo, presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Through: April 20
Where: Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison Street
running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $29-$99, 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org