Stark Raving Ensemble

at the Splinter Group

In my more pessimistic moments I’m convinced we’re living in the dark ages of comedy–at least in Chicago–a time when silliness and sloppiness reign supreme, and no one gives, in the words of E.E. Cummings, “a shit for wit.” Stark Raving Ensemble’s production of Dario Fo’s satiric farce Can’t Pay! Won’t Pay! is a case in point. Noisy, amateurish, overstated, and badly acted, this relentlessly unfunny show provokes many more headaches than belly laughs, all because the director, Michael J. Stewart, and his five-member cast never quite figured out how to release the comedy locked in Fo’s text.

Two years ago this company offered a kick-ass production of Israel Horovitz’s one-act The Indian Wants the Bronx that was so realistic I wondered whether the actor playing the guy who tortures a mild-mannered East Indian was indeed a violent psychopath. The current production has a similar no-holds-barred intensity, but this time intensity is not enough.

Based on an actual workers’ uprising in Milan in 1974, Fo’s play is a complex, some might even say messy, mixture of comedic styles. The plot is pure farce: Antonia participates in the looting of a store, lies to her husband about it, and then has to weave ever more tangled webs of fiction to explain her first lie. Fo even employs that old chestnut, ancient when Shakespeare used it, of increasing the comic confusion by inserting several doubles in the story; one actor plays four look-alike characters–two policemen, an undertaker, and an old man.

Into this farce Fo folds plenty of topical humor: jibes at the Catholic church, complaints about the ever-corrupt Italian government, even digs at the Italian working class. Sometimes this humor enlivens the farce, as when Fo parodies the twisted logic of the pope’s stand on birth control. But at other times the humor is lost on a Chicago audience, as when Fo takes swipes at the Italian social democrats.

A kind of agitprop also informs Fo’s comedy, much as it informs the dark, radical comedy in Bertolt Brecht’s plays and Jean-Luc Godard’s films. Like Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Godard’s Weekend, Fo’s domestic farce is set against the background of a long-awaited proletarian revolution. Can’t Pay! Won’t Pay! even includes a hilarious description of a riot in the grocery store that’s remarkably similar to the one in Weekend.

Reading over the script, I was struck by how daunting and difficult the text is. To make the social commentary believable and funny you’d need a cast not only adept at physical and verbal humor–Fo’s characters love to give long, digressive speeches–but also well informed about Italian politics in general and working-class life in particular.

Sadly, Stewart’s unfocused and underprepared cast doesn’t even come close. Grissette Almann plays Antonia, the schemer at the center of the story, way too broadly. She delivers all her lines–the setups and the punch lines–in the same singsong shout, while flailing her arms around with a graceless, very un-Italian abandon. By contrast, Crislyn V’Soske as Antonia’s neighbor Margherita is way too stiff and quiet, and she’s never less believable than when she’s called on to show fear or cry.

Two of the men in the show do no better. David Shapiro, so wonderful last season in Wallace Shawn’s one-man show The Fever, veers between underplaying and overplaying his lines, while Mitchel McElya plays all four look-alike characters in the same arch community-theater comic style, which screams out “I think I’m being funny” even as it fails to raise a single snicker.

Only Paul Makkos as Margherita’s baffled husband Luigi comes close to making Fo’s lines come alive. Ironically, Luigi is the least comical character in the play, but in Makkos’s hands he’s the most genuinely funny.