Accidental Death of an Anarchist
Palindrome's staging succeeds in the acting department but fails as a political statement
Reviewed by Dan Solomon, Fri., May 25, 2012
Accidental Death of an AnarchistUp Collective Gallery, 2326 E. Cesar Chavez
Through June 3
Running time: 1 hr., 15 min.
Given the choice between putting on a successful evening of theatre or producing an effective polemic, most directors would happily choose the former. It's a shame that Palindrome Theatre Artistic Director Nigel O'Hearn seems so committed to the latter. His company's Accidental Death of an Anarchist is full of quality performances, well-staged comedy, and a nicely curated aesthetic, but it fails on the level that it's desperate to reach.
The program for Accidental Death of an Anarchist is a newsprint tabloid featuring a page-and-a-half director's note in which O'Hearn explains his desire to tie the events of the play to recent events involving the Austin Police Department. Subsequent pages offer editorials about police brutality, and O'Hearn himself takes the stage before the play begins to remind the audience that this is capital-R Relevant. It's fair to say that Accidental Death of an Anarchist wants to be more than just an evening of theatre.
The plot of Dario Fo's 1970 satire is fairly straightforward: After a bombing, Italian police arrest the suspect, an anarchist; during his interrogation, he falls from a window to his death. A self-professed "lunatic" infiltrates the police station, tricks the officers who were present into fabricating their story while he records them, blows their cover for a visiting reporter, and then emerges with a bomb.
The entire cast is effective, but Noel Gaulin is a revelation as the Maniac, delivering dialogue and physical comedy with frantic intensity. He manipulates his opponents, charming and disarming them while maintaining an air of danger. Lindsley Howard also shines as the reporter, playing her as a brassy, no-nonsense Lois Lane/Amy Archer type. All the actors are costumed well, with a foppish aesthetic, and despite the show traveling through various venues during its run, the set never feels half-baked. That's reserved for the play's political themes.
The challenge of tying a classic piece of propaganda to current events is that the parallels don't always line up. That's especially egregious here. The play depicts police officers desperate to avoid punishment for emotionally distressing a prisoner, which may have led him to commit suicide. But in an age when police are videotaped brutalizing citizens with alarming regularity, SWAT teams tear through houses for minor offenses, and Google news searches for the words "police accountability" bring up countless depressing stories, this depiction of a police force wracked with fear that they may be punished for being too mean feels downright quaint. Allegory rarely works if the stakes in the fictional version are lower than in the real world, and that's the production's first major failing.
The second major failing comes near the end, where Gaulin's Maniac breaks character to passionately deliver a new screed – written by O'Hearn – about George W. Bush and Obama, Goldman Sachs, and our scandal-obsessed culture. It's a scattershot raging against the machine that lacks nuance, like the theatrical equivalent of calling in to Alex Jones, and it jumps from theme to theme in ways that seem downright juvenile.
The play ends with Gaulin – whose role as the piece's hero is never challenged – grabbing Howard's reporter by the wrists, shaking her and screaming in her face. O'Hearn never seems to consider that an angry man screaming in the face of a woman he's physically restraining – about how much smarter and more right about the world he is – is both depressingly common and not the action of someone an audience should be cheering for. In the end, the themes of Accidental Death of an Anarchist feel like clumsy paranoia, and O'Hearn's handling of the Maniac-as-Hero seems less about advocating for changing the systems of violence and intimidation, and more about a simple change in management.