The mark of master storytellers is that they can make a given narrative hold resonance and power beyond the narrow context of the original time and place. By this standard, much art will ultimately fall short, stripped of its context and relevance as time marches on. The work that endures captures truth, even when in a different language and time. Italian actor-playwright Dario Fo is considered such a storyteller.
Beyond his considerable comedic instincts, this is due to his choice of material, often focused on promoting the solidarity of a working class smothered by a heartless ruling elite. If unfortunate for Fo’s idealism, the persistence of the struggle lends his work a timeless quality – particularly in the case of They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!
Originally set and premiered in Italy in the late 1970s, Fo’s creation is the story of ordinary people in various stages of subversion against a “free market” stacked against them and teetering in the throes of collapse. Fo has revised the story over the decades to maintain relevance, but the broad contours of the conflict remain unchanged and familiar. Just in time to mark Fo’s 90th birthday, co-directors Joe Martin and Danny Rovins’ latest rendition, presented by Ambassador Theater, seamlessly adapts the action to Great Recession-era Newark: talk of foreclosures, grumbling over bailed out banks, references to Ben Bernanke. (It is a sign of some progress that critical asides about the Pope have been amended to “the previous Pope.”)
With wages depressed and the cost of living ever increasing, a group of women decide to take direct action by helping themselves to “five finger discounts” at the grocery store. They include Antonia (Hanna Bondarewska) and Margherita (Moriah Whiteman), whose capacity for direct action greatly exceeds their husbands’, Giovanni (Darren Marquardt) and Luigi (Mitch Irzinski). The men, ground into exhaustion by the low pay and tedium of their work, have a longer journey in imagining how to even begin meaningful rebellion. Giovanni, in particular, would go without food before considering picking up his wife’s brand of civil disobedience.
Despite its soaring social vision, the production is not nearly as sober as a Bernie Sanders keynote. Pay injects plenty of levity and even slapstick as the women adopt an elaborate ruse presenting Margherita is pregnant to conceal their grocery bounty when Giovanni unexpectedly returns to the apartment. Further shenanigans abound as the women scramble to conceal their thievery from police who conduct a mass sweep in search of the stolen goods.
Peter Orvetti plays a quartet of characters, distinguished mostly by modest costume changes. The most memorable and interesting is a police officer who, proud of his college pedigree during which he may have thumbed through some Marx in the library, adopts a more nuanced view of which thieves the police should be investing their energies pursuing.
The production design effectively captures the cramped frustration of the characters’ living space and makes effective use of the one other setting: a mural on a curtain depicting a range of ordinary laborers, circa 1930s. It’s the kind of image that evokes the art that dotted lobbies and corridors in countless buildings during the heyday of the Works Progress Administration. Now many of these images are fading by neglect and design alike. Witness the 2011 episode in which the Republican governor of Maine took aim at a mural in a government building depicting the state’s labor history, on the grounds it sent an anti-business message. (It was the Department of Labor, no less.)
As the final moments of They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! allude, most of us who make our living from wages should see ourselves in these images and stories, even as the clothing – or the language -changes. We let them fade at our collective peril.
They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! . Written by Dario Fo. Translated by Jon Laskin and Michael Aquilante. Co-directed by Joe Martin and Danny Rovin. Cast: Hanna Bondarewska. Darren Marquardt. Moriah Whiteman. Mitch Irzinski. Peter Orvetti . Set Design: Rachel Knoblauch. Set/Artist Painter: Julia Tasheva. Lighting Designer: E-hui Woo. Costume Designer: Sigrid Johannesdottir. Stage Manager: Xandra Weaver. Produced by Hanna Bondarewska for Ambassador Theater . Reviewed by Daron Christopher.