When election tensions go through the roof, must artistic subtlety go out the window? That's what has happened with "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," the second offering in the Rorschach Theatre's Dario Fo Festival.
Director Grady Weatherford has planted so many heavy-handed contemporary political references throughout this satirical farce -- whose basic script already resonates with political sentiment, as written by the Nobel Prize-winning Fo -- that one almost wonders whether he doubts his audience's intelligence.
Here we have an imitation of George W. Bush reading "My Pet Goat." There we have an arch reference to the terror level rising to "fuchsia." At one point we even hear a deafening chorus of John Ashcroft's "Let the Eagle Soar," accompanied by a shower of red, white and blue convention-style balloons.
It's enough to make Michael Moore look like a master of caution and tact.
Admittedly, the controversial grace notes jibe with the subversive spirit of Fo, whose work is as celebrated for its anti-authoritarian bite as it is for comic and even buffoonish vitality. The modernizing also accords with the playwright's enthusiasm for improvising and updating, for keeping his works relevant and fresh.
It was, after all, a current event that inspired "Accidental Death" -- an incident in which an Italian anarchist, detained for questioning after a 1969 bombing, plunged from a fourth-floor window in the police headquarters in Milan. The death was called first a suicide, then an accident. In 1970, Fo responded to the scandal with this caustic piece of slapstick, set in a police station in the aftermath of a similarly suspicious episode. In this barbed caper, a group of corrupt and incompetent cops become the unwitting dupes of a sly lunatic -- one who's equipped with a visionary understanding of reality, as is the wont of lunatics in literature.
The Rorschach production's chief asset is the actor portraying this oracular lunatic, or the Fool, as he's called here. As his character hurls criminal files out the window or bamboozles the police with fib after fib, Karl Miller brings a crackpot intensity to the role, his fingers askew at weird angles, his hair standing on end like a shock wig. But Miller does dilute his performance somewhat by overdoing the Fool's twitchy movements, a miscalculation that only emphasizes the equally fidgety but less plausible mannerisms of his cast mates, whose acting is less compelling (though Marybeth Fritzky, as a hard-boiled female reporter straight out of "The Front Page," does shore up some confrontational scenes in Act II).
Matters are made worse by a surfeit of distracting stage business -- a character banging his hands irritably on a desk, for example -- and by overactive blocking that generates considerable noise on the wooden base of Matthew Soule's set. A farce has to pulse with a manic energy, but here the general restlessness clutters up Fo's efficient comic mechanism.
To give credit where credit is due, composer David McKeever's spooky incidental music, with its synthesized ticking sounds, provides an appropriately unsettling tone for the action. And lighting designer John Burkland contributes a powerful moment just before the end of the play, when the illumination dims and the Fool, standing in a pool of twilight, gives a grim indictment of his world's -- and our world's -- political status quo.
Here the acting, the design and the artists' faith in the audience's perceptiveness effectively connect Fo's message to contemporary experience without resorting to allusions to recent headlines and "Fahrenheit 9/11." It may be very gratifying to make fun of the way Bush pronounces the word "nuclear," but theater-goers can safely try that at home.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo. Translated by Richard Nelson. Directed by Grady Weatherford. Costumes, Franklin Labovitz; sound, David McKeever and Dan Ribaudo. At Casa Del Pueblo/Calvary Methodist Church, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW, through Nov. 21. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com/rorschach.