Minneapolis comic actor Steven Epp has been part of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre family for many years, appearing in the late Theatre de la Jeune Lune's Don Juan Giovanni, The Green Bird, The Miser and Figaro, and returning after that company's demise in The Doctor in Spite of Himself. Now Epp's back with a somewhat more modern but equally clownish comedy, Dario Fo's biting 1970 agitprop farce, Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
The play's back story is based on an actual 1969 case from Milan in which an anarchist fell, supposedly an accident, from a fourth-floor police station window during a brutal interrogation. He'd been accused of a bombing that was being pinned on the radical left and used as a pretext for rounding up anarchists. The bombing was later discovered to be the work of fascists directed by the Italian secret police.
The play is set after these events, when the mysterious death of the titular anarchist has already taken place. Epp plays a lunatic with a mania for impersonating people who poses as a powerful judge called in to help the police concoct a plausible cover-up story. In the process he manipulates them as deftly and wackily as Bugs Bunny, praising and condemning them, slapping them around, making them sing an anarchist anthem, and driving them to the brink of suicide themselves.
The comedy is fast-paced and broad as a barn in Berkeley Rep's staging by Christopher Bayes, who also helmed 2012's Doctor in Spite of Himself. Interestingly, though, while the gags fly fast and furious, there's a long stretch of the play where nothing much happens. While the Maniac's putting the cops through their paces, he just keeps going and going until all their defenses are down. While that's entertaining to watch, there's a lot of spinning wheels and not much progress for most of the middle of the play.
Epp is marvelously entertaining as the Maniac, a tornado of impressions, accents, asides, slapstick and topical references. He really is like a cartoon character come to life, set loose in a sitcom world of bumbling, corrupt cops that's pretty goofy to begin with, although always with the underlying edge that there are grim real-world consequences to their hijinks.
Liam Craig is the archetypal irascible sad-sack police superintendent, first entering in a bloodstained smock from questioning a suspect. Allen Gilmore mostly winces and mugs as a flailingly dimwitted detective in ultra-'70s attire (brown sport coat over orange turtleneck, costumed by Elivia Bovenzi), but at some point he launches into a standup routine that's hilarious in its sheer absurdity. Jesse J. Perez is amusingly agitated as a slightly savvier detective from another floor, the only one who knows who the Maniac is. Eugene Ma absolutely steals the show as a pair of virtually identical constables, gaping and whimpering like a toddler. Pretty much every time he does anything, it's hysterical. Renata Friedman arrives very late in the play as the only female character, a hard-boiled reporter whose every movement is sharp and quick, especially the way she crosses and recrosses her legs.