From left, Eugene Ma, Steven Epp, Allen Gilmore, and Liam Craig in Berkeley Rep's "Accidental Death of an Anarchist"
From left, Eugene Ma, Steven Epp, Allen Gilmore, and Liam Craig in Berkeley Rep's "Accidental Death of an Anarchist"
© Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus

Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Berkeley

This breakneck-paced farce will make you laugh even as it leaves you wondering about the justice system it lampoons.

By Dario Fo

Adapted by Gavin Richards from a translation by Gillian Hanna

Directed by Christopher Bayes

Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley, Calif.

March 7 – April 20, 2014

Full disclosure: I don’t much like farce. Slapstick and pratfalls and opening and slamming doors somehow never manage to tickle my funny bone. That said, I am forced to tell you that I could not stop laughing during Berkeley Rep’s hilarious revival of Dario Fo’s “Accidental Death of an Anarchist.” Helmed by the multitalented Stephen Epp as a “Maniac” hauled into a police station for a minor offense and brilliantly directed by Christopher Bayes, it is a breakneck-paced romp through the justice (or, rather, injustice) system that will leave you pondering a bit after the laughter has died away.

The play is Nobel Prize-winner Fo’s response to the actual case of a railway worker who “accidentally” fell to his death from an open police station window during an interrogation regarding a 1969 bank bombing in Milan. The man, Giuseppe Pinelli, was one of 4,000 suspects arrested in conjunction with the case. Serious stuff, huh? But what followed was farce-worthy in the extreme. Also unforgivable. The case dragged on for more than 35 years, with overturned convictions, accusations of involvement by everybody from right-wing fascists to the CIA and, by the last trial in 2005, no proven culpability.

If Fo’s original script skewers a bureaucracy so full of itself that it forgot all the people it was created to serve, this adaptation goes it one better, pushing it into our own time with references to everybody from Brando to Dianne Feinstein, with a poke at Berkeley liberals and a sequence out of “The Sound of Music” that is priceless. Epp is perfect, right down to his mismatched socks as the alleged madman — actually the only sane person in the room — who impersonates a judge and a forensics expert to teach the cops a thing or two about their own jobs.

He has fine support from Liam Craig as the blustering police superintendent, Allen Gilmore as his second-in-command, Jesse J. Perez as a functionary and Eugene Ma as a pair of constables, identical except for their mustaches, right down to an amazing countertenor voice. Renata Friedman has a late bravura turn as a sexy, hard-boiled Oriana Fallaci-type reporter who threatens to expose the whole bunch of them. Any or all of them are prone to burst into song at any moment, abetted by musicians Aaron Halva and Travis Hendrix, tucked away to the side of Kate Noll’s seedy office set, complete with crumbling pillars that serve as the proscenium arch.

Excellent as they all are, it is the rubber-faced Epp who walks (runs, slithers, dances, leaps) away with the show. Sure, his Maniac is a certified nut case (some 17 times actually, and he carries the papers to prove it with him in a plastic supermarket bag) but, in the end, he makes better sense than the people in charge. And that’s pretty sad.

Who knew farce could be so funny — and not.

Suzanne Weiss

San Francisco, CA
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”