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Tuesday, March 5

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Theater Wed Feb 16 2011

Signal Ensemble's Accidental Death of an Anarchist Hits Close to Home

Anarchist #8.JPG

Officer #2 (Christopher M. Walsh, left), the Commissioner (Eric Paskey, center front), the Madman (Joseph Sterns, back, red tie), Sporty (Anthony Tournis, right, white shirt), and Officer #1 (Elizabeth Bagby, back right) sing a song together. Photo by Johnny Knight.

There is no apparent anarchy in Signal Ensemble's tidy and well-rehearsed version of Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist. That is not to say it is not in the spirit of anarchy, or that it is not an effective play-- because it is, without a doubt. The impeccable craft, attention to detail and obvious investment of countless days memorizing lines only makes a stronger case for this timely (if not timeless), sharp, satirical production.

This clever, faced-paced story pokes fun of police corruption, inspired by the real-life case of anarchist railway worker Giuseppe Pinelli, who fell-- or was thrown-- from the fourth floor window of a Milan police station in 1969. The events of the play itself, however, are fictional. The play opens with Inspector Bertozzo (Vincent Lonergan) interrogating "The Madman" (Joseph Stearns). The Madman, a scam artist with a role-playing fetish, constantly outsmarts the dim-witted police staff-- pretending to be a judge, wreaking havoc, getting them to re-enact incriminating events and eventually completely lose it in front of a suspicious reporter (Simone Roos).

Although the play was written immediately after Pinelli's death in 1969, it has a 1950's-style slapstick feel to it, a la "I Love Lucy", complete with dim-witted, donut-munching cops (played with endearing restraint by Elizabeth Bagby and Christopher Walsh). If you consider that slapstick is a descendant of the comic routines of Italian commedia dell'arte, it makes perfect sense. The focus in this story is on dialogue, not narrative or character development. These are simple, stereotypical, mono-faceted characters, and that's why the story works. It's confusing enough to keep track of what's happening as it is, what with everyone running around screaming all the time, without having to invest time in getting to know the characters. The fun is in watching the Madman wrap everyone around his fingers, and we love it when he does because we hate them all. And we hate them all because they're all selfish idiots. Donut-munching selfish idiots.

Joseph Stearns clearly steals the show as the Madman, spouting out a thousand words a minute for practically the whole two hours of this play. Imagining the discipline it must have taken him to learn his lines is absolutely mind-boggling. And on top of that, he's constantly hopping all over the set, climbing on furniture and speedily changing costumes to suit whatever character his character adopts at any given moment, all the while visibly dripping with sweat. Props must also be given to Anthony Tournis and Eric Paskey who play the inspector and the commissioner, respectively, with just the right amount of sleaze, pathetic desperation and awkward helplessness to make us belly laugh while we love to hate them.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist is a delightfully transgressive classic that pokes fun of corruption, reminding us that it is all too easy for people in power to manipulate the truth to suit their interests. It seems fitting that it be performed in a city famous for corrupt cops, perhaps especially so during the home stretch of the Mayoral race. Any Chicagoan can imagine these scenes taking place in the Daley Center, with Blagojevich stuffing his face with donuts while he schemes with his lawyers.

It is refreshing to see a play that is both funny and smart. And if Youtube clips are any indication, Signal Ensemble's version is a unusually tight and well-produced one that theater fans in particular should check out.

Signal Ensemble's Accidental Death of an Anarchist was translated by Jon Laskin and Michael Aquilante and directed (quite skillfully) by Anthony Ingram. It opened February 14 and runs though March 19 (Thursdays through Sundays) at Signal Ensemble Theatre (1802 W. Bernice Ave.). Visit or call 773-347-1350 for tickets.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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