We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!
by Dario Fo
UNB Theatre, Stage Left and Chin Flick Productions
Memorial Hall, February 2004
Dario Fo's most performed play is popular for a reason: it's sure-fire funny. You can read the script on a bus and find yourself laughing aloud; and seeing it acted -- by consummate professionals or by undergraduate apprentices -- is guaranteed to knock you loose from your seat, if not actually to roll you in an aisle. I'd last seen it (in a different translation, with a slightly different title) in Boston, at the American Repertory Theatre, but I was happy to have the chance to see it again at Memorial Hall.
The basic premise of the play is that it's 1974 in Italy and inflation and unemployment have collapsed the economy; there are food riots. The play opens with two women (think Alice Kramden and Trixie Norton in The Honeymooners -- but in Italian, with politics by Bertolt Brecht and just a splash of I Love Lucy) coming in to this crummy apartment with a dozen bags of groceries, which one of them has "liberated" from the local supermarket. The Alice / Lucy character (Antonia), played here by the solid, confidently funny Lillian Drydsdale, has to hide the groceries under the bed so her husband (who, it turns out, would rather eat cat food and birdseed soup with frozen rabbit-head broth than become a "thief," playing into the hands of the bosses) won't find them.
The absolutely conventional sitcom stuff that ensues (played here a whole lot more broadly even than Ralph and Alice -- there's a strong whiff of Commedia del Arte clowning about this) is, or can be, hysterical. Antonia's friend Margherita (Jamie Mitchell, who is as convincing a rag-doll knockabout clown as I've seen on the Mem Hall stage) winds up carrying her stash of groceries around under her coat, and Antonia explains to her (own) incredulous husband, Giovanni, that Margherita's pregnant (though she's only been married for five months to Giovanni's best friend, who -- understandably, Giovanni thinks -- has said nothing about the pregnancy). But why hadn't anyone seen it? "Oh, that's because she bound herself up to hide it," Antonia explains airily. "But I told her it was bad for the baby, so we just unbound her here this afternoon. . . . off came the bandages and out came the belly. Poof! Like a barrage balloon."
That's how it goes. I don't think I can explain how the cop (who may not be the same as the other cop, the one without the mustache -- both are played with wonderful John Cleese style: one reasonable, one nearly Basil Fawlty, by Devon Luke, who created the role of Raj in Happy City) winds up being thought dead, so that the women, who can't go through with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, try to revive him with the oxygen tank from Giovanni's welding torch, pumping his stomach up until he looks ten months pregnant, so that when he awakens, in a coffin in the closet, he thinks he's miraculously been struck pregnant (Antonia has made up a wonderful Catholic legend to account for all the "pregnant" women walking around the streets). Nor how the two husbands, in their male innocence, come to think that we spend our first nine months floating in vinegar, along with olives.
Much about the UNB Theatre production was great. Lots of spectacularly timed physical comedy; lots of exaggerated double-takes and staggering moments of recognition, lots of impassioned speeches about not putting up with the rich people and the Pope and the cops ripping us off. Kurt Galley, as Giovanni, assumes a gravelly, stentorian "talk like a pirate month" voice which, unfortunately, limits his range, and tended to wear as the evening went on, especially contrasted with the more naturalistic style adopted by Dan Doran as the hapless Luigi. Still, the two friends have enough Ralph and Ed moments to keep us engaged. Especially enjoyable is Giovanni's frequent repeating of what someone else has explained to him to someone else as though he were the expert. I found it disappointing, though, that Giovanni's actual political position -- a moderate, temporizing, don't-rock-the-boat-too-far socialism (which it seems was the main target of Dario Fo's satire) didn't get a very convincing presentation. It probably seemed beside the point in a play which is primarily slapstick, but in my view what makes Fo's play good is partly that it does deal with some serious ideas. I wondered, as well, whether it might not have been worth updating the references in the play from 1974: most of the references -- the Pope's categorical stands on matters sexual, for instance -- haven't changed at all, but it's really too bad that Fo didn't have the chance to bring in George Bush and the rampant capitalist crowd in Washington, and, even more, the neo-Fascist business-centered Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi. They were all made for the kind of satire Fo specialized in.
The evening began with a mock lecture from a woman from the Italian travel agency (the booming Johanne Théériault) explaining to us about Italian culture, telling us that many Italians are communists (but not the bad kind). A street musician (Geordie Doak) plays guitar to one side, occasionally punctuating the action and occasionally joining in to shift a bag of caustic soda (again, don't ask). Memorial Hall remains a difficult space, and the way it distances the action from the audience is made even clearer when, for a couple of street scenes, the action comes down to floor level and is suddenly far more intimate and engaging.
On the whole, however, Jennifer Roberge-Renaud, in her directorial debut, gave us enough laughs, and almost enough food for thought, to compensate.