Up to now, Italian satirist Dario Fo has been primarily known in Washington as the author of "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" and as an occasional nemesis of the State Department, which disapproves of his political leanings and until recently barred him from visiting the United States.
Anyone fortunate enough to catch Fo's brief engagement at the Kennedy Center's Free Theater in "Mistero Buffo" (tonight, Friday and Saturday) will discover he's a lot more -- mime, stand-up comic, historian, gadfly, political commentator and, quite possibly, the world's largest performing rabbit.
He certainly tends to hop about a stage, and whenever he springs a particular bit of mischief on the audience, he is quick to crinkle his eyes in glee and crack what Americans, at least, will recognize as a Bugs Bunny smile. The sketches and related commentary that make up "Mistero Buffo" are somewhat harder to describe. It's as if a radicalized Margaret Mead had decided to turn her material into a one-woman street show.
Fo is out to revive and preserve the centuries-old traditions of itinerant Italian performers and clowns. Some of his sketches are performed in archaic Italian dialects, others in an imaginary language (called "grammelot") that is intended to sound like English, French or Italian, but, in fact, makes no literal sense.
If, however, he resuscitates the comic contortions of a commedia dell'arte "zanni," so hungry that he devours parts of his own body, or reprises a medieval satire of ruthless Pope Boniface VIII, it is not merely in the interest of anthropology. Religious leaders can be just as venal today, and the problem of hunger befuddles American politicians as much as it did the Venetian doges. Fo prefaces each sketch with a lengthy digression that may start out to provide us with historical data, but quickly works its way around to contemporary issues. Fo is not on the side of the authorities.
Although he improvises the commentary nightly, the approach is an artful blend of ingenuousness and deviltry. Without ever seeming less than good-natured, Fo skewers, among others, papal pomposity, Reagan, nationalism, religious fanaticism and the unreconstructed male chauvinist, who claims that, because they have breasts and breathe in public, women invite rape. "A good girl doesn't breathe," he notes, innocently.
Fo's digressions are ably translated by Ron Jenkins, who leaves the stage whenever the performer undertakes a sketch. Then, subtitles are flashed on a large screen. But even without such aids, Fo is an expressive presence -- a burly man, whose limbs appear to elude gravity's tug, even if his jowly face doesn't. One minute, he's God, peering down from a cloud; the next, he's a 17th century French aristocrat, drowning in lace, or a con man selling tickets to the resurrection of Lazarus. All the while, he's having as merry a time as we are.
Fo and his wife Franca Rame (whose one-woman show is scheduled in the Free Theater on Thursday night and Saturday afternoon) are being presented without charge by the American National Theater. ANT members have priority seating, but others are let in 15 minutes before the show begins. So far, ANT reports, no one has been turned away. Mistero Buffo, written and directed by Dario Fo. Set and lighting, Lino Avolio; translation, Ron Jenkins. At the Kennedy Center's Free Theater through Saturday.