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.
Kate Noll's terrific set strips away all pretense that this is anything other than a performance. It's a dingy police station that looks straight out of a 1970s cop show, but the set is much smaller than the stage, surrounded by lots of visible scaffolding and low-hanging stage lights. A crumbling faux proscenium arch frames the stage. Dressed as cops, musicians Aaron Halva and Travis Hendrix sit just outside the police office, providing a steady stream of comedic musical cues. (The characters have a habit of breaking into song and dance at the drop of a hat.)
Epp breaks the fourth wall frequently throughout the show with wry complaints about the show's budget and the state of arts funding; he puts Ma in the spot as being clearly the same guy as the other Constable, only with a mustache this time. The Maniac holding forth on the endemic police corruption in 1970s Italy becomes a veritable aria of liberal gripes on everything from the distribution of wealth to voter suppression to same-sex marriage and racial profiling. Conspicuously absent in the extended rant are allusions to our local police shootings and abuse, a connection that speaks for itself given the overall plot of the play. "Steve, this isn't Dario Fo," Craig cautions, and Epp aptly replies that Fo would have gone much farther.
A bit of updating is appropriate in a madcap comedy that's designed to be played fast and loose, and to have a deeply cutting political edge at the same time. But if anything, the indictment of the system is soft-pedalled; it's all stuff that a Berkeley audience can pretty comfortably agree with without feeling too complicit. Despite the serious business at its root, it's a show that's more interested in amusing than accusing, and on that level it succeeds splendidly.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist runs through April 20, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.
All photos by Joan Marcus.