Absurdism and Social Justice in Death of an Anarchist


oliver dennis, daniel williston, ins choi, kawa ada, raquel duffy & rick roberts

photo by cylla von tiedemann

Sitting in a darkened theatre can be a somber place. It is an increasingly rare experience that brings a community of strangers together to sit and experience the same event, without pauses to check our phones or to give in to other daily distractions. In this way, often the theatre becomes the place where we gather to cathartically cry about cancer, or to explore issues pertinent to our society, like the question of legalizing euthanasia, or our roles in the conflicts in the Middle East. In Ravi Jain’s production of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which played until February 21st, 2015 at Soulpepper Theatre, the question arises whether it is possible for an audience to laugh and be entertained, while also engaging in critical discourse and social action at the same time. In short, must a play be either light, fun and entertaining, or deep, intellectual and “important,” or can it it be both?

Accidental Death of an Anarchist was written in 1970 and its spark of inspiration was pulled directly from the Italian headlines. On December 12, 1969 a terrorist attack occurred and three bombs were detonated, two in Rome and one at the National Agrarian Bank in Milan. An anarchist railway worker named Giuseppe Pinelli was suspected, arrested and later died while in custody from a fall from a fourth floor window of the police station. There were significant discrepancies in the police account of his death, which initially maintained that Pinelli had committed suicide by leaping of his own volition out the window during a routine interrogation. His name has since been cleared in the case. In Fo’s imagined work we are introduced to a “Madman,” a genius of improvisation, deception and impersonation, who wreaks havoc on a police station by pretending to be a Superior Court Judge coming to investigate Pinelii’s suspicious death.

This play has become a classic and often revived work of the World Theatre, but it was not intended for this conventional concept of success. The work belongs to what Fo and his partner Franca Rame refer to as “Throw Away Theatre,” a work so topical that it spoke with immediacy to the concerns of its Working Class audience, was highly improvisational and was meant to be discarded the moment it became outdated. What is so telling, and depressing, about this play is that its themes of the corruption within the Law Enforcement and Justice systems and insistences of police brutality and bias, are just as relevant today, here in Canada and elsewhere in the World, as they were in Italy in 1970. In keeping with the spirit of Fo’s “Throw Away Theatre” Jain has staged an American translation of the play by Jon Laskin and Michael Aquilante and has changed all the play’s references to reflect 2015 in Toronto- grounding it, as Fo would want, immediately in the here and now.

Kawa Ada, as a the Madman, is a breathtaking tour de force, bursting with energy and words and playful shenanigans that cascade out of him with breakneck speed and formidable urgency. Both are traps that are meticulously set to unravel the lies of Inspector Pak (Ins Choi), two Constables (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Daniel Williston) and the Chief of Police (Rick Roberts) and to expose the inherent Absurdity in such corruption existing at a police station in the first place. Ada’s Madman has a triumphant self-congratulatory exuberance about him that is innocent, like Peter Pan’s crowing, and with the craftiness of Bugs Bunny and mischievous charm of Arlecchino, he endears himself to the audience in his crusade for the truth, even while infuriating the exasperated Inspector Bertozzo (Oliver Dennis), who keeps trying to arrest him on prior charges of fraud.

Rick Roberts’ Chief of Police is stiff, pompous and full of formality, but is willing to do anything the Madman’s Superior Court Judge suggests in attempt to cover up any wrongdoing by himself and his Inspectors and Constables, that may have led to the death of the anarchist. The interplay between the Madman’s fake Judge, who at one point appears wearing a peg leg, a fake hand and an eyepatch, like a dismembered pirate, and Robert’s Chief, who so earnestly proves that he is so desperate to save himself he will grab hold of ANY lifeline, regardless how ridiculous it is, is hilarious. Roberts is reminiscent of Toronto’s own Police Chief, Bill Blair, whose involvement in various scandals have kept his name in the news in recent years. The play also makes reference to the allegations of police brutality during the Toronto G20 summit, the cases of Sammy Tatim, who was shot dead on a streetcar by police and Edward Snowshoe, who committed suicide in federal prison after having being segregated for 162 consecutive days, and the Mayor Rob Ford crack video scandal. Ada’s Madman conjures up Billy Flynn’s philosophy of “Razzle Dazzle,” which culminates with the Madman convincing the Inspector, Constables and a very reluctant Chief of Police to join with the audience in a rousing rendition of “Solidarity Forever.”

The farce is kicked up to Three Stooges caliber in the Second Act with the reemergence of Inspector Bertozzo threatening to blow the Madman’s cover, and the arrival of a journalist (Raquel Duffy) from a left-wing newspaper looking to expose the truth behind Pinelli’s death. Bertozzo’s desire for justice, to expose a man he knows to be a fraud, is suddenly at odds with the interests of Inspector Pak, the two Constables and the Police Chief, who need the Madman’s lies to help deceive the journalist. In this tug of war, Oliver Dennis’ Bertozzo becomes a literal punching bag, a beating down of the truth by the enforcers of the law. The journalist is easily swindled by the Madman’s eccentric stories and just as it seems as though all has been in jest- for the delight of tricks and slapstick- Kawa Ada jumps through the fourth wall and reminds us, the audience, that we are sitting and laughing at our own dismal state of affairs- that the corruption and scandal and injustice here in Toronto is real and serious. It is a jarring moment. Do we feel guilt for enjoying the last two hours of theatre? Do we wake up and engage with it in a different way? Or, do we examine how we have been using our laughter?

Dario Fo described the play as “grotesque farce about a tragic farce,” and indeed, that is exactly what Ravi Jain’s production at Soulpepper is. It is enjoyable for us to see those who are powerful in our society made to look ridiculous and for someone who is usually more vulnerable, a Madman, for example, to wield all the power. That power inversion is the very essence of satire and comedy. Yet, if we admit that the farce, although not quite so theatrical, is real, as we did when we finally voted Rob Ford out of the Mayor’s Office, we come closer to deciding that we are tired of allowing and accepting such absurdity and corruption. Then we get closer to doing something productive to change it. Laughter can be empowering and communal, and empowering the people is integral to social change. The fact that Accidental Death of an Anarchist hasn’t been able to be thrown away yet because it still resonates so strongly with the people proves that we’re still in need of a little madness to shake up our scandal-laden status quo.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Soulpepper Theatre is closed. 



rita macneil

I am never ready to write these In Memoriam posts, but the sudden death of Nova Scotian musical icon Rita MacNeil has blindsided me with such force and shock that I have yet to settle into the reality that she is gone. Perhaps coupled with the tragic world events this week my heart isn’t able to process any more pain. Perhaps after losing Raylene Rankin, Stompin’ Tom Connors and Jay Smith in such short succession recently, the idea of losing Rita as well seems especially unfathomable. All I know is that I feel weary under my heavy heart as I relinquish another one of my childhood heroes up to St. Peter’s Cape Breton-style kitchen party.

Before I remember going to the theatre, before I asked my mom if we could get the music of Bette Midler, The Beach Boys or The Rankin Family, EVEN before I fell in love with Waylon Jennings and his song “Amanda”- Rita McNeil’s 1987 Flying On Your Own was the soundtrack I remember in our car. Before I was born my mother had accumulated an eclectic mixture of records, but as a single parent of an often dramatic child she was slow to transition her Boney M, Janis Joplin, Carole King, Carly Simon and other 1970s music icons to cassette. We listened to the radio a lot, but for this reason, for (what seemed like) a long time as a very young child the Rita MacNeil, the Reba McEntire and the Waylon Jennings tapes were the only ones playing on a steady loop as my mother and I drove around Nova Scotia, both of us usually singing along.

Circa 1988, when I was about four years old, my aunt, who was then the Deputy Director of the Atlantic Region Management Training Centre at the Technical University of Nova Scotia, and one of my biggest heroes, got Rita MacNeil as the keynote speaker of her Women in Business Conference entitled, aptly, Flying On Your Own. I remember this being a gigantic moment in our family’s lives. Rita MacNeil was coming into OUR little realm as a feminist hero. I come from a family of feminists. My grandmother, discouraged that she was not allowed to go to school to become a nurse because her mother needed her at home, moved from Souris, Prince Edward Island to Montreal at sixteen (in 1934) in search of independence and adventure with only her younger sister for company. She would become matriarch of the three Campbell girls and work full time outside the home (and inside the home) until I was born in 1984. My Aunt Carol worked her way up in business, going to school at night and continually proving to me that women could be “the boss,” just like Angela Bower  (Judith Light) was on Who’s The Boss. My Aunt Joan lived in Toronto and was a police officer there, which, especially in the 1970s and 80s, was the very definition of “kickass.” My mom was a single parent with a full time job as a Health Educator who had been a gym teacher and athlete. She would go on to get her Master’s Degree, while working full time, and graduate with top honours in 2003. In hindsight Rita’s lyrics “You were never more strong, girl/ You were never more alone/ Once there was two/ Now there’s just you/ You’re flying on your own” were glaringly fitting for my mom. Yet, as a child it was the chorus that always resonated so ardently with me: “First you stumble/ Then you fall/ You reach out/ And you fly/ There isn’t anything that you can’t do.” I vaguely remember making up actions to this while sitting in the backseat of our Toyota Corolla. Even at four years old I knew that was the lesson: you are a girl and there isn’t ANYTHING that you can’t do. I remember understanding that Rita was coming to Aunt Carol’s conference to spread this message to all these women, who, like my aunt, were bosses or wanted to be bosses, like Angela Bower, and she was empowering them with the story of her own success. I knew that this was important work. I knew that I wanted to grow up and to be a woman able to do ANYTHING too.

I was too young to attend the conference but my aunt still speaks so highly (and often) of Rita’s grace, kindness and humility during that time. She autographed a record for my grandfather, who was a big fan, which he cherished. This experience made Rita MacNeil tangible to me. I understood that we lived in the same province and that she had a life beyond the radio and the cassette tape and the TV set. She reminded me of an elementary school teacher, the ones who were soft spoken and kind but never talked down to kids, and this radiated in her singing voice as well. There was wisdom in her words, but it was the quiet kind. There is also a striking vulnerability to her music that makes it feel very intimate, even when you are listening to a recording. Even as a child “She’s Called Nova Scotia” would make me cry with a sort of wistful pride that would eventually turn to homesickness.

Nova Scotia is a small province and I think often people who grow up away from giant urban centers feel marginalized, or as though they need to leave their hometown in order to find success or that nothing of international significance could possibly happen in their small sphere of the world. I never felt this way about growing up in Halifax. In fact, I thought that being from Cape Breton actually improved your chances of becoming an international music star (doesn’t it!?). Rita MacNeil paved the way for the exciting and incredible plethora of musicians who continue to pour off the Island and head for platinum record star power. She paved the way for singer/songwriters like Rose Cousins, who won a Roots & Traditional Solo Record of the Year tonight at the Junos. Rita wrote about Cape Breton, she wrote about Nova Scotia and the people and the stories of our history and our ancestors. She inspired people like Jimmy Rankin who would do (and still does) the same and between Rita MacNeil and The Rankin Family Nova Scotian culture was transported all over the world and continues to reverberate there. How could I think as a child that the place I came from was insignificant or liable to hold me back when there were more songs sung in my childhood about my home than about Toronto or New York or anywhere else? Not only was I encouraged to be a strong woman, a smart woman, a determined woman who could do anything, I was being encouraged to be a proud Nova Scotian woman who loved my province and my heritage. Not a bad role model for a four year old!

I was a child who paid close attention to the lyrics of songs and I liked when I understood the story that the singer was imparting to me. I often misheard lyrics (or re-interpreted them so they made sense to me) so I appreciated Rita’s crisp diction and the simple imagery she was able to evoke about big ideas and poignant, deep concepts, even to a young child. Her 1993 Christmas album Once Upon a Christmas conjures up so many memories for me of listening intently to her lyrics amid bustling through my favourite time of year, cozy and joyful with my family. It reminds me of Christmas concerts in the Sacred Heart gym, decorating Christmas trees at Aunt Carol’s house, coloring paper reindeer, bringing Quality Street chocolates for my classmates and having sing-alongs in the Little Theatre. It reminds me of trying to understand what the story of “Good King Wenceslas” meant (Hither Page? Yonder peasant? Bear them thither? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN!?) of learning “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” in Latin (my phonetic Latin is still far better than my phonetic Gaelic) and it reminds me of considering the lyrics of “Rocking the Cradle” and, for the first time, thinking of Mary and Jesus as being real people just like me and my mom- a revolutionary idea to me at the time and one that would help shape my ideas about religion and the world. Around this time Rita also hosted a television program that I remember watching haphazardly; I always liked when she had the Rankins as guests, and she also had a Christmas special and sometimes she would do duets with Anne Murray and it was impossible to forget that I lived in the same province where all the famous singers came from.

As I grew older, of course, cassettes shifted to compact discs and I ventured into different styles of music from places far away from me. Yet, in October 2002, at seventeen, I found myself at the Opening Night of Charlie Rhindress’ play Flying On Her Own at Neptune Theatre. It was directed by Margaret Bard and starred Denise Oucharek, Raquel Duffy, Nicola Lipman and Frank MacLean. I ended up writing an essay/review of the production for my Theatre 1800 class at Dalhousie. Here is a fun excerpt, “This moving play about a truly inspirational Maritime talent is filled with beautiful acting moments and wonderful music that soars through the theatre and touches the heart. [Raquel] Duffy and [Denise] Oucharek are a delightful match for one another and perfectly suited to play MacNeil. It is clear that they too are “flying on their own” ways to success and greatness.” Somehow after the show had ended I managed to introduce myself to Denise Oucharek, who is even more of a delight offstage than she is onstage, and we forged an immediate connection and friendship that still persists to this day. After hearing that I had been a fan of Rita’s since I was three or four years old Denise immediately shocked and astonished the daylights out of me when she said, entirely nonchalant, “Come meet her, then!” COME MEET HER THEN!? And so, before I knew what was happening, there I was, seventeen years old and towering over a very real and beaming Rita MacNeil. I’m fairly sure the words I said to her were unintelligible, but her kindness permeated into my heart, that sheepish warmth and gentleness and the tears came immediately into my eyes. I trembled for quite awhile after we left the theatre. It was a night that I will never forget.

It was because of Charlie’s lovely play that I learned about the profound struggles that had preceded Rita’s staggering success story. She had a cleft lip as a child, which made her the target of ridicule from her peers, likely contributing to her low self esteem and acute shyness. She overcame poverty, alcoholism in her family, abusive boyfriends, and many rejections and setbacks in her musical career before hitting her stride with Born a Woman in 1975 and then more setbacks and rejections before breaking out with Flying On Your Own in 1987 at forty-three years old. The lyrics in her songs became even more staggeringly clear. They were not just about women being able, they were about resilience and taking strength and courage from failure and persevering beyond all odds and conquering self doubt. These would all prove to be things that I not only can relate to, but also that I need reminding about often. Rita MacNeil’s story was even more inspirational than I could have imagined and it made a beautiful piece of theatre. It has also made her music timeless and important.

Rita MacNeil was a prolific songwriter. She released 25 records between 1975 and 2012, eight of which went Platinum (4 2X and 1 3X). She won three Juno Awards, a Gemini Award, several ECMA Awards, was awarded the Order of Canada and held five honorary doctorates. She reached a different demographic when she guest starred on Season 4 of the Trailer Park Boys and recently she was interviewed on George Stroumboulopoulos. You can fall in love with her here.

She has been hailed Cape Breton’s “first lady of song” and she will be deeply missed not only by the East Coasters who adored her, but by people all over the world who connected ardently to Rita’s wide open heart, warm, beautiful voice and soft spoken grace.

Soulpepper Academy’s Clowning Around

I was so impressed with the Soulpepper Academy’s ee cummings rebirth in song at the Canwest Cabaret Festival that I quickly followed Young Centre for the Performing Arts’ Artistic Director, Albert Schultz’s, advice and got a ticket for their Clown Cabaret later Friday evening. Under the guidance of Theatre Columbus’ Leah Cherniak, the Soulpepper Academy artists had created their own performance piece comprised of ten unique, dynamic, clowns in various incarnations and using a variety of different clowning techniques and styles to elicit the perfect mixture of laughter and pathos.
Beginning with some Michael Jackson choreography and an exuberant race to cover the chalkboard set pieces with as many words, both charming and crude, as could be crammed into the space as possible, these clowns were immediately engaging and bursting with energy. The Cabaret was broken up into smaller sketches in which each member of the Soulpepper Academy was featured in at least one. It became clear, through the constant reappearance of certain performers, that there were those who had consummate command of the clown tradition.
Raquel Duffy, as an uncouth clown who continually attempts to seduce her audience as her insecurity and awkward stage fright keeps luring her to surpass all boundaries of propriety, became one of the stars of the evening. She began in a sketch with Gregory Prest in which both attempted to sing Billy Rose and Lee David’s “Tonight You Belong To Me” (1926), a song made famous by Bernadette Peters and Steve Martin in the 1979 film The Jerk, yet Duffy and Prest’s clowns become baffled when their sheet music is missing its last few notes and their song comes to a grinding halt. Prest was particularly hilarious in his grumbling clown whose vocal lilt was reminiscent to that of Stuart Larkin from MADtv.
Ins Choi and Karen Rae then burst onstage with a tricycle and proceeded to hilariously recreate the classic “I’m flying, Jack” moment from James Cameron’s 1997 epic film Titanic. Matthew Kabwe brought the house down with his extremely endearing sweeping clown with a penchant for classical music. Kabwe gives a beautifully, simple, heartfelt performance as the sweeping clown who gets swept into performing the lip-synched version of Gioachino Rossini’s “Largo al factotum,” (more commonly known as the “Figaro… Figaro…. FIG-AH-RO” song, sung frequently by animated characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)) despite the fact that this clown does not know all the words. Kabwe has brilliant comic timing and slays the audience with a glance as his tongue becomes increasingly tangled in such a long, Italian tongue twister.
Duffy is then joined by Brendan Wall as two musician clowns, Duffy with a flute and Wall with a cello, both vying for a single chair. After a well choreographed bit of the anticipated slapstick, the audience is treated to a magical moment as Duffy and Wall share the chair and their instruments and together, each playing one half of the two instruments, they reach an incredibly impressive compromise. Gregory Prest returns with that infamous magician of indeterminable accent as he tries with utter incompetence to hide a red chili pepper beneath a plastic cup, hoping to trick the audience so that he will not have to eat the pepper. The tables turn magnificently as Prest accidentally burns his eyes from the pepper and launches into a wild and fantastic tirade of eye gauging jokes with theatrical references from Oedipus to Helen Keller and Chekhov, Williams, Shakespeare and even Cats. This is truly comedy gold. Laughter is mixed beautifully with pathos for Tatjana Cornij’s heart wrenching accordion-playing clown, whose ultimate triumph is mirrored nicely in the audience’s sense of satisfaction.
I was particularly impressed by the ingenuity of these sketches and these clowns and I found myself acutely aware of the fine line at play and the tension between laughter and compassion. Clowning is so much about the sense of discovery. The clown has such joy, anguish, fear, or all three, as he or she discovers some new aspect of the world, and the audience is able to share in these emotions as they are lured to see the world through the eyes of the most innocent (and in some cases the most mischievous). At its very best, the clowns’ eyes show a mixture of joy and melancholy as though one can not exist without the other to keep the balance. Such nuance is not wasted on balloon animals. These Cabaret clowns prove that they can evoke both laughter and tears.

oh little birdie oh oh oh… whatever they sing is better than to know

on friday night i sat in the small rbc studio at the young centre for the arts, waiting in anticipation for the commencement of the hottest ticket at the canwest cabaret festival, ee cummings rebirth in song performed by the soulpepper academy. The young centre’s artistic director, albert schultz himself, was bustling around the room, trying to swiftly cram as many eager patrons into the small room as oxygen (and presumably fire marshal codes) would allow.
the soulpepper academy is a full-time, paid training program that was launched in 2006 in which ten artists from across the country were chosen to undertake a two year residency to further develop their skills under the guidance of leading theatre practitioners, further their careers through involvement in soulpepper productions, teach in the classrooms of the local community, mentor youth and develop a collective creation. one might assume that these artists were being groomed specifically in their arthur miller, edward albee and david french so that upon their graduation from the academy they would enter seamlessly into the classical repertory tradition that soulpepper upholds so brilliantly. and yet, while i’m sure that the students at the soulpepper academy do work on classical texts, they are also given wonderful opportunities to explore a myriad of different styles and, with the help of musical director mike ross, the members of the academy set about creating their own cabaret for the canwest cabaret festival inspired by the poetry of ee cummings.
the result was absolutely stunning. the music that these remarkably talented artists have mixed with cummings’ words is vibrant and exceptional in its beauty. each performer plays a variety of different instruments from a piano, guitar, flute and accordion, to a slide whistle, a kazoo and a squeaking plastic frog. the rhythms fill the space with electricity and each member of the academy’s beautiful singing voice combines in evocative harmonies which prove that beyond all the talents that will be utilized in the upcoming soulpepper season, these artists are all gifted musicians and singers as well. i found the talent and the profundity of ee cummings rebirth in song to be quite overwhelming.
clad in a delightful array of costumes, some with paper pirate hats, the artists moved about the stage with a hint of clown and a beautiful simplicity and openness to play as they meandered with their bodies, their instruments, the light and their canopy-sail set creating the most stunning pictures, painting on light and with sound. brendan wall sang lily has a rose with such a beautiful voice, such simple, lovely singing from his soul, that it gave me goosebumps. similarly, ins choi sang always before your voice my soul as though it were a rousing anthem, to which one by one the others joined in harmony with great emotional depth. i was not familiar with the poetry of ee cumming prior to this cabaret, and i felt both instantly mesmerized and powerfully moved by the exquisite composition of this poetry and its ability to conjure great imagery and stir up the most vivid emotions. As gregory prest sang nobody loses all the time, i found myself laughing in earnest through tears that streamed down my face, a response which felt obvious to my heart but utterly perplexing to my brain. prest has a beautiful voice that soared throughout the small space.
the most magical moment of the evening was during the song anyone lived in a pretty how town which was sung by a group of artists in view of the audience, while the story was acted out with perfect grace in shadow behind their canopy-sail set. the shadows morphed as the story wove onward, both into one another, to different shapes, and finally grew overwhelmingly large just before the two artists stepped into the light. this song was immensely captivating and was, in my opinion, the most charming piece in the show. there was also a brilliant moment of theatricality as brendan wall played the piano and sang goodbye betty, don’t remember me as a beautiful jazz ballad while matthew kabwe did an incredibly compelling dance, which could have been a long-lost addition to the musical fosse. raquel duffy sat on the piano and performed the perfect encore with may my heart always be open to little, and her sweet, lulling voice suited cummings’ lyrics perfectly.
it was incredible to sit at the young centre and listen to these songs and to realize that they were recently composed collectively by a group of artists, and that ee cummings had not had these rhythms, intonations and harmonies in mind when he captured so much humanity in ink. ee cummings’ genius with words is obvious even in only reading a handful of his work, and so, of course, certain poetic lines jump out of the academy’s rebirth, yet it was remarkable how the music was able to both accentuate cummings’ words, while also expanding it into poignant musical interludes which lent constant fresh perspectives to this poetry. like the little birds that raquel duffy sang about so sweetly, who “are the secrets of living,” so too did I feel like each of the ten artists involved in this cabaret had discovered something insightful, but only through music, poetry, shadow, movement and light could it be shared and heard by those who are not yet too old to perceive it.
As an aside: I would find it most helpful and illuminating if headshots and bios of the artists chosen for the Soulpepper Academy were provided on the Soulpepper website. Especially after this hit cabaret (the first time shows have been added to the Canwest Cabaret Festival to meet overwhelming demand), I’m sure that the public will be looking with anticipation and interest on this incredible group of artists.
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