Sunday, March 29, 2009

Here and Gone: UWM's Accidental Death

By Russ Bickerstaff
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As ambivalent as I am to some of what I see, it’s not uncommon for me to enjoy a show. There’s a considerable difference having a good time at a show and truly loving it, though. If I see six shows in a pair of weeks, I may enjoy one or two of them quite a bit, but if I see one hundred shows in a year, there may only be two or three that I’d pay money to see again. . . and again . . . probably a few times. UWM’s The Accidental Death of An Anarchist is one of those shows--an exceedingly indecent amount of fun from beginning to end, the production plays with energy somewhere between Oliver Stone, Bugs Bunny and the Marx Brothers.

Part of the UWM Lab/Works series, Accidental Death only runs for one week. As I write this, the final performance is only a few hours away. Amidst a very busy weekend, the earliest I could make it to this particular show was last night, but as the show in question only runs for one week, a print review would have been run after the close of the show anyway . . . had I known it was going tobe this good, I would've gone much earlier.

The play is written by Dario Fo. It’s based on an actual news item from Italy in 1969, when an anarchist had died in police custody. The plot follows a wily anarchist’s clever manipulation of his own criminal investigation. It’s a frighteningly clever political comedy brilliantly brought to the stage by Director Rebecca Holderness.

The play first debuted in 1970. The production design is updated for a more modern feel, but the “Case Notes” in the program suggest that the play could be set in any era anywhere. It even suggests on of Saturn’s moons as a possible location. This deliberate ambiguity eliminates any specific political commentary, broadening things quite a bit and allowing the play to speak on grander scale to the unending universality of government red tape in the face of adversity. Eliminating the idea of any specific space, Holderness also went on to eliminate the idea of a single anarchist. This bit was particularly brilliant. Being played in turn by a tag team of two actors and two actresses (Grace DeWolff, Callie Eberdt, Tommy Stevens and Jason Waszak), the anarchist in this production is no lone nut. (Even Lee Harvey Oswald was at least three different people.) The government, which seeks a tidy solution to the problems posed by political subversion, would prefer to look at a group of four people in long, black coats and see them as a single person. It’s a fun premise. In addition to splitting-up the anarchist into a group of four, the cast here includes: A police Superintendent (Jonathan Koller,) a police inspector (Ben Wilson) a guy identified in the program as “sports jacket,” (Max Hultquist,) a journalist (Lineve Thurman,) a constable (Lillian Tilson,) a Custodian (Auburn Matson) and an Annotator (Ashley Sevedge.)

The center of all the action, however, is the lone nut anarchist played by four different people, occasionally all at once. Holderness assembled a really talented comic quartet. The action seems pretty evenly split between the four, with each playing a different aspect of the character.

Grace DeWolff (or Callie Eberdt) seems to be playing the attractive, PR side of the Anarchist. She’s there to be a public face of the Anarchist. All the others perform in this capacity at some point as well, but DeWolff is the most effective at being the sales rep for the group with a confident smile amidst the chaos.

When things get a bit more difficult to handle even in the face of confidence, Tommy Stevens is there to play press secretary/damage control for the group. There’s a brilliant comic clarity to Stevens’ chutzpah in the role that serves as a somewhat coherent center to the character. That being said, even a coherent end to the character has a wild side and Stevens excels in those moments as well.

A short girl with long, dark pigtails, Callie Eberdt (or Grace DeWolff) seems to be the bugs bunny of the group, excelling in the highly physical end of the comedy. Eberdt has a flair for physical comedy accentuated by a fairly compact body. She seems to get tossed and shoved around a bit more than the rest of them. There’s clever subtlety in some of the finer points of her performance that makes her one to watch for in future UWM productions . . .

The taller end of the wild, physical comedy here is played by Jason Waszak, who also makes an appearance in the Pink Banana shorts program across town later on in the evening. Here he carries himself with a Groucho Marx-like posture. Waszak also excels at playing the face of authority for the group when it needs to impersonate a high ranking man-in-charge.

Suffice it to say, with a cast as large as it is, this is a very, very dense production. Holderness packs a great deal of activity into the tiny studio space at UWM’s Studio 508 in Kenilworth Place. Anarchists in dark, flowing, black garb rush in and out of the theatre space imperceptibly as the action of the play drifts from character to character. They pop-up from behind blinds, desks, windows and other bits of scenery in an impressive flurry that never really has a chance to get boring. Holderness conducts the action to move everyone through the space in a pleasantly bewildering fashion from beginning to end. The addition of the annotator to this particular production was also a really nice touch. Ashley Sevidge whisks around behind the central action, posting signs and writing things on a blackboard illustrating different aspects of the investigation. Dressed in traditional UWM custodial garb, Auburn Matson is employed to occasionally add comic punctuation to the frenzy of activity onstage.

The production’s music is a nice little addition to things. Classic and not so classic punk rock plays prior to the opening of the show and at brief intervals within the production. Some of it’s pretty obscure. I distinctly recognized the opening part of ‘90’s Chicago garage punk band Screeching Weasel’s Anthem For A New Tomorrow playing the moment the show ended. A bomb was held-up, the Screeching Weasel started playing, the light went out and when they came back-up all the actors were gone. The anarchists were rushing into the hallway. One of them could distinctly be heard saying, “It’s over.” I don’t remember there being any curtain call . . .

The production is far from flawless, but it has only those imperfections that make the rest of the performance that much more impressive. By the time anyone reads this, the final performance will be only a few hours away. It’s worth the trip out to UWM to see it. You might want to hurry. The Saturday Night show was sold out.

UWM’s Accidental Death of An Anarchist has a final performance Sunday (today) at 2pm (in just a couple of hours.) UWM’s next show is a main stage production of Hair that runs April 21 – 26.

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