Russ Hunt's Reviews

Won't Pay, Won't Pay
by Dario Fo

American Repertory Theatre
Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 1999

[from an email report to the family]

The play. Hm. You may remember that we were a whole lot less than enchanted with the last ART thing we saw -- Nobody Dies on Friday -- so I wasn't sure about this. But I had seen a production of it in Fredericton, and thought even a not-so-great production might be worth a look. Does anybody else remember seeing Can't Pay, Won't Pay at the Daigle Theatre at STU, back when Janet Amos had set up "Contact Theatre" at TNB and did a couple of joint productions with STU? It's the play where, um, a woman gives birth to a couple of olives on stage? No? The MP claims she never, ever saw it, and suggested that maybe I'd taken Jif &/or Kit to it while she was babysitting or something. She says if she'd see anybody pumping up a dead policeman with a welding torch (artificial respiration without having to kiss a cop) until his belly was the size & shape of a medicine ball she'd probably have remembered it.

Turns out the production was over the top. As much fun as we've had in a theatre in years. The premise is that it's 1974 and inflation and unemployment have collapsed the Italian economy, and there are food riots. The play opens with two women (think The Honeymooners 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, "liberated" from the local supermarket. The Lucy character (Antonia), played wonderfully, if just a bit fast, by Marisa Tomei -- grand, big gestures, super double take, astounding projection of desperate thought when she has to come up with yet another lie to get out of the net caused by her earlier ones -- 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 steal) won't find them.

The absolutely conventional sitcom stuff that ensues (played just a bit more broadly than Desi and Lucy -- there's a strong whiff of Commedia del Arte about this) is, or can be, hysterical. Antonia's friend Margherita winds up carrying her stash of groceries around under her coat, and Antonia explains to her (own) incredulous husband, Giovanni, that she's pregnant (though she's only been married for five months to Giovanni's best friend, who's -- understandably, Giovanni thinks -- said nothing about the pregnancy). But why hadn't he seen it? "Oh, that's because she bound herself up to hide it," she says airily. "But I told her it was bad for the baby, so we just unbound her here this afternoon."

Oh, yes, the olives. During a house to house search for vegetables, the police are going to look under the bed, so Margherita collapses onto it and pretends to be in labor. Deftly unscrewing a jar of pickled olives, she squats next to the bed and hollers that her water's broken. A cascade of vinegar and a couple of olives leak out onto the floor, sending all the men into paroxysms of ignorant male guilt and embarrassment: the cops lead the women out to an ambulance, leaving Giovanni to clean up the mess -- one of the funnier cleanups you've ever seen, as he discovers ("I never knew!" he says incredulously) that we spend the first nine months of our lives in pickle juice, floating among the olives. He gingerly retrieves the olives and puts them on the kitchen table.

A few minutes later, Margherita's husband Luigi has arrived, and, among other things, absently picks up the olive and pops them in his mouth.

That's how it goes. I don't think I can explain how the cop winds up being thought dead, and the women try to revive him with the oxygen tank from her husband'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).

There was a great deal about this production that was wonderful. 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. Thomas Derrah, who played Giovanni, actually began the show fifteen minutes before curtain time, playing an Italian lounge singer in an impossible ruffly tux and singing old cliché standards and working the crowd as they came in. He actually had a fine voice (he could make it as a lounge singer), and had all the moves -- the unctuous delivery, the fake-friendly patter ("Good evening madam, nice to see you here, don't you look lovely tonight. We do take requests; we don't promise to sing them, but we do take them. Is anyone here having a birthday or anniversary tonight? . . . ") His piano player, it turns out, is Will LeBow, the actor who plays both cops, the undertaker and Giovanni's father -- all to the tune of remarks about how much the new character looks like the old ones. The other other main actor, Ken Cheesman (who was in Big Night, it says here, and who plays Ed Norton to Derrah's Ralph Kramden), wasn't bad either.

Derrah (who we thought was utterly astounding throughout) introduces the play, singing "That's Amore" while the, um, model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa that's been standing to one side of the stage, well, dances . . . the lights go down a bit, and the large sound board which had been center stage magically disappears, the Tower of Pisa dances off, a huge cloth which had been covering some unidentified lumps at the back of the round stage is whisked off revealing a crummy fridge, gas stove, and cupboard at the back, next to a couple of five-foot tanks and a welding torch on a dolly, with a table to the left and forward and a bed downstage to the right, on the back half of a round stage, which rolls forward about ten or fifteen feet into the middle of the playing area. Two lines of laundry roll out overhead from each side of the stage, and we suddenly realize that behind the stage are a series of high, staggered flats, each of which has a cityscape of apartments and balconies painted on them. One of the flats is attached to the back of the circular stage, and rolls forward with it; it has a huge walk-in closet in it, and a door cut in it through which people come in and out of the "apartment." A great set, and totally different from the more naturalistic one TNB had put into the Daigle.

It was, all in all, a wonderful afternoon -- the company put a kind of energy into the show that was astonishing (especially considering they were going to do it all again at 8:00, and then again Sunday, which was the closing), and we didn't hesitate to join the standing O at the end.

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