We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay! Cinnabar Theater, Petaluma CA

From left: Liz Jahren, Samson Hood, Nathan Cummings, Gary Grossman, Sarah McKereghan

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Photos by Eric Chazankin

Food for Thought – and Laughs

It starts with a trip to the grocery store.  It ends with populist upheaval.  In between are bits of zany slapstick and broad satire straight from the golden days of television – think I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners meet Mack Sennett, Italian-style. It’s social protest swathed in broad comedy, rage against the machine presented as Commedia dell’Arte.

We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay! by Italian playwright and anarchist Dario Fo was written in 1974 for the Italian stage. In 1997, Mr Fo was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, for “scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”.  Incredibly,  Fo had at one time been banned from the U.S. under the McCarran Act, a McCarthy-era law designed to keep out “subversives”. We Won’t Pay! was first translated into English in 1975 by Lino Pertile, with a newer adaptation by R.G Davis for his 1980 off-Broadway premiere of the show at the Chelsea Theater  Center. Davis is noted for founding the San Francisco Mime Troupe in 1959, and for his “divergent theatrical concepts”.   Then came the 1999 translation, by Fo’s friend and collaborator Ron Jenkins, for his premiere that same year at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s the Jenkins version being presented at Cinnabar. It contains only the very subtlest contemporary references. But even without these updates, there is plenty for modern audiences to identify with.

Liz Jahren, Sarah McKereghan, Nathan Cummings

The story opens with the poverty-stricken but feisty Antonia and her friend Margherita realizing they are in big trouble when they come home from a shopper’s revolt against high food prices at their local grocery store. Their frantic efforts to hide some contraband food from their husbands (and the police!) are beyond hilarious. False pregnancies, wayward olives and not-quite-dead cops propel the madness to dizzying heights. The audience would be on the edge of their seats if they weren’t rolling in the aisles. This play is hysterically funny – hysterical, in every sense of the word.  These ladies and their husbands are pretty excitable folks.

Antonia is played with delightfully manic energy by Liz Jahren (Always Patsy Cline, Dirty Blonde, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). She’s the rocket fuel that keeps this show soaring, with her high-decibel voice and animated mugging.  Nathan Cummings (She Loves Me, Crimes of the Heart) is her Giovanni, solid as a rock. Cummings presents a warm and nicely textured performance as the blue-collar hero with high ideals and a charming stubborn streak – he sulks in the closet when he doesn’t get his way.

Antonia’s adorable sidekick Margherita is played by Sarah McKereghan (Crimes of the Heart). Her reactions to her friend and the growing chaos around her are absolutely priceless. She makes good use of her huge eyes and pantomime skills. Margherita’s husband Luigi, a gentle, plodding clown played by Samson Hood (Born Yesterday, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), has some of the funniest scenes in the show, drawing howls of laughter.

Gary Grossman, Liz Jahren

Multiple roles by master transformer Gary Grossman (Taming of the Shrew, 6th Street Improv, Born Yesterday) include a “utopian subversive” cop, a state trooper, a grandpa, and a gay undertaker.  He draws upon his vast improvisational talents and impeccable timing, bringing a special nuance to each character.

Gabe Sacher and Harley Hubbard provide support in a couple of small roles as police back-ups. Sacher is especially memorable as a truck driver (miming his truck, no less), whizzing across the stage, blithely puffing on a cigarette, gone in a flash.

Director Laura Jorgensen wisely relies on the talents of her cast, keeping the staging simple and letting the actors shape the storytelling, ideal for this type of satirical farce. The set design includes some vintage appliances and decidedly modest furnishings.

The oddball ending moves us from raucous comedy to passionate polemic almost in the blink of an eye. Is it too rough of a landing? Can this transition be a little smoother? Possibly. But Mr Fo’s intent is to stir things up, turn convention on its pointy little head, and then make you laugh about it. In this regard, We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay! at Cinnabar is a roaring success.

When: Now through October 7, 2012

8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

2 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $15 to $25

Location: Cinnabar Theater

3333 Petaluma Blvd North, Petaluma CA Phone: 707-763-8920

Website: www.cinnabartheater.org