At Strawshop’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, the Choice is Yours

Published at TheSunbreak.com on July 10th. 

Ryan Higgins as Maniac; Photo: John Ulman

With recent news including SPD pepper-spraying a Queer Fucking Queers gathering, despite little evidence of violent behavior from participants, and shutting the press and public out of an SPD-related community discussion, claiming the hall was full (it was not), Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist (through August 4; tickets) is nothing if not apropos.

Fictionalizing an actual event which happened in Italy in 1969, Accidental Death of an Anarchist (by Dario Fo) deals with the aftermath of a suspicious incident involving the defenestration of a suspected anarchist. Or, it’s about the opportunity to use the word “defenestration” in a sentence, ’cause it doesn’t happen very often. Take your pick.

The story goes, that after a grueling interrogation session with an anarchist suspect about the bombing of a bank, the suspect jumped from the fourth floor of the police building and subsequently died. The death was pronounced accidental, not suicide. (Insert shifty eyes.)

Lest you think this is an awe-inspiring, rise-to-your-feet, call to action, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is incredibly tongue-in-cheek. Taking a farcical approach to the subject of police brutality, torturous  interrogation tactics, and general skeeviness we are able to laugh in that awkward way we do when simultaneously realizing how fucked the system is.

Using an insane character (literally listed as “Maniac” in the program) to uncover the truth of the situation (cleverly played by the wonderfully physical Ryan Higgins), we are able to see the unraveling of a depraved group of police officers.

The Maniac has a problem impersonating officials with the help of false credentials (well, not so much a problem, but the police can be so touchy about those things). Most recently, the Maniac impersonated a psychiatrist and charged an exorbitant rate for consultation–his rationale being that if he didn’t charge a huge fee, people wouldn’t think he was a bona fide professional.) He also declares that he’s always wanted to play a judge, and because this is a farce, he gets his chance.

Under the direction of Gabriel Baron, Higgins’ performance defies physics (the guy literally bounces all over the place and does a few stunts that border on aerial arts). One of my favorite moments happens in the dark, with a swinging overhead light (design by Reed Nakayama), as Higgins points dramatically at the police officers, intimidating them into confessing their deeds. Also of  note was Higgins persuading the burly men to join together and sing a chorus of–well, I won’t ruin it for you. But it will get stuck in your head.

Aside from Higgins, there are other truly impressive performances, including MJ Sieber as the Superintendent, artfully (and yet, not really) dodging every attempt to try to pin him in the interrogation room at the time of the accident. And the effulgent, yet completely underutilized Rhonda J Soikowski as the reporter, Feletti is always a pleasure to watch.

(This underutilization is mostly a problem of the script. Fo wrote  one female character to five men, and unfortunately, Feletti isn’t written to be a force, or have depth, or you know, any characteristic that would be horribly missed in a male character. But Soikowski does what she can. While I would love to rant about picking plays that have female characters who are worth playing, the play makes up for this huge oversight by providing delightful, I-can’t-believe-they-just-made-murder-funny humor.)

The play’s set (designed by Greg Carter), a gorgeously bureaucratic stack of filing cabinets in a police precinct, perfectly sets up the ridiculous farce that follows. Because the cabinets were also climbable, they made for a lot of laughs when the police troupe scramble to find the second report of the accident, which rewrites the first account entirely.

If you’ve seen this production before, there are a few additions to the script that comedy, and especially farce, allows. Dropping in mentions of current events–as well as mixing in a dig at Intiman’s Miracle: some of these moments are successful.  But other, more obscure references fly by leaving you to wonder which incident in Egypt was being referred to, or did you hear it wrong.

In the end you get a choice. There’s a bomb ticking, set in motion by the Maniac now playing the role of anarchist. Feletti has to decide to save the police, or save herself. Either way, Fo makes it clear that the anarchist is in the right. He’s proven the police will be corrupt, and that the only way social change will happen is to let the corrupt die, or be blowed up.

Further, is the Maniac an anarchist to begin with, hell-bent on exposing the police force’s lies, or simply slipping into another role, just as he becomes a psychiatrist, professor, and judge? I’m happy I don’t know. Well, I’m happy that I debated it with a friend and that neither of us gave ground on our interpretation.

Strawshop’s most recent productions (Inherit the Wind, and my beloved Cloud 9) have all tackled important issues (teaching evolution in classrooms and sexual/identity politics) that seemingly preach to the (mostly) converted of Seattle (yay, we like education and women!). And while the same could be said for Anarchist, this production accomplishes something the others have not quite attained–a lasting impression.

The Occupy movement, nearing its one-year anniversary, has seemingly lost steam, or at least lost that feeling of impending social uprising. As my companion noted, a year ago it felt very much like we were going somewhere. Something was going to change. And here we are, almost a year gone by with many if not more of the same issues. (Only we’ll hopefully be able to afford healthcare in 2014. So, that’s something, right?)

Anarchist speaks, in perhaps an unintentional way, to that feeling of disillusionment presented by having made a choice. But here it’s not so much a choice as evidence of Fo’s point that revolution is the only way. The bomb is going to go off. The question is, are you going to save those who you don’t believe deserve salvation, or will you save them and get blown up? The way it’s presented makes the choice far too easy (no need to call Sophie on this one).

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