BWW Review: CAN'T PAY? DON'T PAY! Comically Reflects the Growing Social and Economic Divide Plaguing America
Dario Fo (1926 - 2016) was an Italian satirist, actor, playwright, comedian, singer, theatre director, stage designer, songwriter, painter and recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature, now known as one of the most widely performed playwrights in contemporary world theatre. His plays have been translated into 30 languages and performed across the world, and when performed outside Italy, they are often modified to reflect local political and other issues. As such, Fo encouraged directors and translators to modify his plays as they see fit, as he found this in accordance to the commedia dell'arte tradition of on-stage improvisation. Among his most popular plays of the 80 he wrote are Accidental Death of an Anarchist (1970) and We Can't Pay? We Won't Pay! (1974).
The Actors' Gang, led for the past 39 years by its Artistic Director Tim Robbins and based at the Ivy Substation in Culver City, is presenting Cam Deaver's translation of Fo's Can't Pay? Don't Pay!, directed by Bob Turton, who starred in the Gang's production of Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist last year, which according to Robbins, "was in many ways a reaffirmation of the mission and purpose of The Actors' Gang. The actors, director and designers found a truth in Fo's wildly funny play that deeply resonated with our audiences. There was a hunger in the company for more Fo, so it made complete sense to revisit him again this year with a production of Can't Pay? Don't Pay."
This wildly funny satirical farce questions why, in a world of bailed-out banks and overpriced prescription drugs, theft is only a crime when it is committed by those truly in need, centering on humble housewife Antonia (Kaili Hollister) who joins a revolt of women at the local supermarket as they are all hungry and fed up by rising prices and stagnant wages. Determined to live with dignity and rejecting an austere diet of dog food and birdseed which is about all Antonia can afford to buy on her husband Giovvanni's (Jeremie Loncka) wages working on the production line at a local factory, the women's protest escalates and looting ensues.
On her way home to hide the liberated goods, Antonia runs into her friend Margherita (Lynde Houck), the wife of Giovanni's best friend Luigi (Thomas Roche) who also works in the dead-end line at the factory. And although she missed the supermarket commotion, Margherita is recruited into her friend's frantic need to hide the goods taken from the supermarket from their husbands and the police.
Hilarity ensues as corrupt police officers search door to door while detectives investigate the neighborhood to determine what is really going on and who is at fault. And with talented, comedic actors Danielle Powell and Steven M. Porter playing all the supporting roles, often requiring backstage costume changes within seconds to re-enter as other characters, all the while making fun of themselves for being stuck in a play that cannot afford to hire enough actors to play all the roles, this interactive theatrical experience will keep you in stitches from start to finish.
Thanks to Turton's set design, from the moment you walk inside the theater, you enter the working class home of Antonia and Giovanni with two rows of audience seats on the stage, allowing the actors to speak directly to and include those seated in such close proximity to become part of the discussion about what is fair and right when upright citizens have no recourse to keep from starving and keeping a roof over their heads. Of course, this is overwhelmingly true for most Americans being forced to live below their means due to the cost of living increasing while wages (or social security) cannot keep up. After all, news of seniors living on dog and cat food constantly fill the media, given the prohibitive cost of healthy food. Unless you are wealthy enough and just don't care about those starving around you. Sound familiar?
Several clotheslines hang above the stage, adding to the realism of Antonia's apartment being in the type of beehive building where neighbors hang clothing out to dry between their units to avoid the cost of visiting a laundromat. And when the play begins, Antonia and Margherita rush in from the lobby and circle around the audience before entering the set, carrying canvas bags of groceries, immediately drawing you into the intimate nature of the production, brilliantly directed by Bob Turton at perhaps the fastest pace of any play I have ever seen.
But where to hide the goods? Certainly not in the closet where Giovanni's hangs out to have his own much-needed private space, or in the refrigerator where it will certainly be discovered. So it's under the bed with everything after Antonia divides up the goods between them, then puts up a pot of bird seed soup with rabbit heads, the type of meal she always prepares for her husband who is soon to return from work. And return he does, with his own set of challenges after learning he will soon be laid off from work, which will throw the two out onto the street.
Antonia seems to know how to distract her husband from discovering her recent antics by sexually tantalizing him by turning her back and shaking her butt while asking him, "Did I do the right thing?" Of course, his eyes bug out and he is ready to forget all the words and throw her on top of their bed. But how can Antonia chance that with all the "goods" hiding below it? And of course, that is the exact moment the police show up to search the place!
Soon the women devise the best of all possible places to hide the good, disguised as their oversized, pregnant bellies thanks to costume designer Rynn Vogel. But how in the world will they convince their husbands and law officers why they did not appear to be pregnant the day before and are now ready to give birth? I found myself laughing hysterically while shaking my head at the stupidity of the men in believing such a thing was possible, an acknowledgment of how much men and women will never understand the physical realities of each other's bodies, or the apathy directed at others less fortunate than ourselves which has infiltrated modern society.
Kudos to the cast and entire production team for such an entertaining and immersive theatrical experience, which brilliantly reflects the mission of The Actor's Gang, led for the past 39 years by its Artistic Director Tim Robbins, who shares, "The play humorously addresses challenges that people have in every culture as they struggle for dignity in increasingly difficult economic circumstances. That Fo finds humor in such serious subject matter is a testament to his unique talent as a playwright and explains why he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1997, much to the dismay of his detractors and political enemies. Fo saw society through the lens of the common man and was fearless in his commitment to exposing the hypocrisy of corrupt politicians and the businessmen that own them. Dario Fo is one of my personal inspirations, the reason why I started writing plays and it is such an honor and joy to be able to bring his plays to life in our theater."
Actors' Gang productions have been performed in over 150 universities worldwide, as well as in prisons, juvenile detention camps and reentry facilities in the Los Angeles area, and provides free in school and after school programs for thousands of public schools in the Los Angeles area. Over the years, The Actors' Gang has received awards and commendations from the California legislature, the Governor's office, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the White House. And I am proud to get the word out about their productions in my hometown.
Can't Pay? Don't Pay" performances run through March 28, 2020 at 8pm on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and at 2pm on Sundays 2/23, and 3/22. Reserved seat tickets are $34.99, Seniors: $30, Under 30 and full-time students: $25, with Thursday Evenings - "Pay What You Can" and are available by calling 310-838-4264, at the door prior to each performance, or online at www.TheActorsGang.com. The Actors' Gang Theatre is located at The Ivy Substation at 9070 Venice Blvd, Culver City, CA, 90232. Read street parking signs in the area carefully, or park in the Trader Joe's multi-level lot on Culver Blvd., across the street from The Actors' Gang. There are many local places to enjoy a variety of food and drink options before or after the performance.
The 2019-20 season also includes Free Shakespeare in the Park and Cabaret (April 23-June 13), directed by Will Thomas McFadden, with book by Joe Masteroff, stories by Christopher Isherwood, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.
Photo credit: Ashley Randall