Intiman Theatre Festival is opening its 2013 four-play second season with a show that checks off two boxes in the company’s revamped agenda.
Nobel Prize-honored Italian playwright Dario Fo’s 1974 romp “We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!” is both a boisterous comedy and a political broadside. Balancing the two is a tricky business on U.S. stages, where slapstick farces crossed with Marxist rallying cries are rare.
Intiman doesn’t master either aspect of Fo’s wild ride — which chronicles the surreal escapades of two frustrated Italian housewives — but the show has verve nonetheless, and some rich laughs.
Director Jane Nichols is a clowning expert, and she’s devised some dandy lazzi (comedic shtick) for her game cast.
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Giovanni (Burton Curtis) and Luigi (G. Valmont Thomas) are luggish factory workers so gullible they believe their wives’ claims of late-stage, spontaneous pregnancies.
That’s one of many preposterous whoppers invented by Giovanni’s nimble wife Antonia (Tracy Michelle Hughes), who with Luigi’s skittish mate Margherita (Kylee Rousselot), goes to absurd lengths to hide plunder from a looted supermarket.
The store was ripped off by a mob of homemakers enraged by the skyrocketing price of food, and “We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!” is, as the script’s translator Ron Jenkins suggests, a comedy of defiance and hunger. (In one Chaplinesque bit, characters snack on tinned pet chow.)
Fo gives an irony-laden critique of a society deaf to its citizens’ needs. He employs commedia dell’arte/TV sitcom tactics as “I Love Lucy”-style fabulist Antonia frantically covers up her larceny from the cops and her Archie Bunker-ish hubby. Issues like layoffs, threatened reproductive rights and the working-yet-starving all come in for comedic indictment.
The production is best when pratfalling. As bumbling police and other zanies, Adam Standley is a welcome blast of unbridled comic anarchy, a rubber-legged lunatic with Monty Python silly walks, bizarre accents and quick-change chops.
Rousselot, tottering on platform shoes and emoting from under high-teased hair, is also a gifted physical comedian, scoring laughs with a cringe, an eye-roll, an unwieldy walk. And despite an off-putting orange fright wig (the cartoonish costumes are by Deb Trout), Curtis finds nuanced humor in Giovanni’s blustery dilemmas, opposite Thomas‘ thick-as-a-brick Luigi.
But Antonia is the wily ringmaster of the madness. And instead of gradually escalating the craziness of her flights of improvisation, Hughes seems unsure of her lines and stuck in a one-note state of fluster.
Despite Jenkins’ spry translation, the lengthy show slackens when it is wordiest. And though cracks about heartless corporations, global warming and church doctrine feel current, there’s little political bite here, little sense of the true agony of being crunched underfoot by cruel economic forces.
Fo’s depiction of class struggle, Italian-style, is essentially universal (and very germane to today’s Europe). But the play needs a superbly realized production or more adaptation to reach an American audience on multiple levels.
The Intiman version falls short. But those hearty laughs are a plus, and there’s food for thought if you grab it.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org