The Poets’ Theatre March production of Mistero Buffo, at the Modern Theatre of Suffolk University in Boston, was not only a return of Fo’s great, often one-man, show, it was also a celebration and memorial. March 24th of this year was Dario Fo’s 90th birthday, and 2016 is the 30th anniversary of Fo’s original 1986 theatrical collaboration in Cambridge/Boston at the American Repertory Theater, which also marks the 30th anniversary of Fo’s first voyage to the States, as a visa was long refused to the politically subversive dramaturge.
Bob Scanlan and Walter Valeri’s new American translation of the play brings to life, in English―with use of Italian, French, Latin, and, of course, the Boston accent/dialect―Fo’s original Po Valley grammelot. The translators remember what Vladimir Mayakovsky said of his 1918 Mystery-Bouffe: that future artists had to renew it, update it to the very second of performance, make it relevant. They remember that Fo, himself, renewed and revised from medieval counter-cultural jongleur acts for the play’s episodes and from Mayakovsky for the title. Thus, they do not try to translate literally, but relevantly.
The show begins with an introduction to the character of the jongleur specifically for a US audience, clarifying that he is not the jester, but a ‘dicey profession’, a ‘vagabond clown who lives by his wits’ and ‘risks excommunication to make fun of the rich and powerful.’ And in answer to the question of who, today, challenges the power structure. The jongleur answers his own musing: ‘Maybe Bernie.’ But Bernie, he goads, ‘is grim like an old testament prophet.’ The work of the jongleur is more meaningful, closer to the core needs of the people, because it challenges the status quo while making people laugh, gives them joy, rather than anger and fear.
Five of the play’s original eight episodes follow in the two-hour show: “Prologue: The Birth of the Giullare,” “I: The Wedding at Cana,” “II: The Resurrection of Lazarus,” “III: The Morality Tale of the Blind Man and the Cripple,” and “IV: Mary at the Cross.” The three-man cast, featuring veteran Boston theatre actors Benjamin Evett, Remo Airaldi, and Debra Wise, is costumed a la Fo, simply in black with the barest utilitarian props. Scanlan’s direction, rigorous to the original, the audience’s close proximity to the stage, the actors’ bare feet, and the stark lighting accentuating every detail of skin, hair and spittle, refuses to civilize and gloss the somatic and grotesque associated with the original medieval and Fo’s jongleurs.
The show’s highlight is “The Resurrection of Lazarus,” a tour de force of medieval jongleurs, as it required the portrayal of some 15 characters by simple and quick changes of bodily attitude and position. The role is performed, for the first time ever, by a woman, and Debra Wise’s portrayal is remarkable. She is the first in line at the cemetery cum concert venue, she is selling tickets, she’s a vendor, she’s a moralist, a hedonist, a Jesus and the Apostle’s groupie. Wise-as-Fo rejoices in a clash of the sacred and the popular, the cult and the spectacle, in a re-appropriation of consecrated Western history that dares spectators to reevaluate their own culture, specifically, spectacular culture and the cult of the star, and broadly, all commonly-accepted authority, history, and morality.
Julianne VanWagenen is a PhD candidate in Italian studies at Harvard University, with an interest in 20th century Italian cantautori and fractal literature. She is also a principal at the Berkman Center’s metaLAB where she is concerned with new forms of publishing in the Humanities.