Review: ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay!’ at Nu Sass Productions

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Nobel laureate Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay! (one of several English language renderings of the original title, Non Si Paga! Non Si Paga!) opens as Antonia (Francesca Marie Chilcote) and her friend Margherita (Mary Myers), weighed down with grocery bags, rush into Antonia’s simply furnished economy-sized apartment. Soon, in a virtuoso performance by Chilcote, Antonia is explaining that she was part of a large number of women who, frustrated with hyper-inflation causing supermarket prices to rise daily, rebelled – simply taking everything they wanted within reach and paying what they wanted. Chilcote acts out the full cast of characters in melée: housewives, elderly widows, the store manager, delivery truck drivers, and riot cops.

Steven Soto, Mary Myers, Francesca Marie Chilcote and Colin Connor in Dario Fo’s 'Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay!'. Photo by Mara Sherman.
Steven Soto, Mary Myers, Francesca Marie Chilcote and Colin Connor in Dario Fo’s ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay!’ from Nu Sass Productions. Photo by Mara Sherman.

In her frenzied looting, she acquires such delicacies as beef compost for dogs and cats, bird seed for canaries, and frozen rabbit heads as a supplement for chicken-feed along with such staples as pasta and rice. Worse, Antonia also suddenly remembers her husband Giovanni (Colin Connor) is a law-and-order type who might fly into a homicidal rage if he knew his wife was a criminal. Soon she is stuffing her ill-gotten gains under the bed, and under Margherita’s coat, leading Giovanni to wonder how in just a week since he last saw her, she looks nine-months pregnant.

It does not take long before Sergeant D. Sbirro (Nu Sass Artistic Director Aubri O’Connor), a police officer with anarchist sympathies conducting a house-to-house search for the stolen groceries, a state trooper with a ridiculous mustache also named Sbirro (O’Connor again), and Luigi (Steven Soto), Margherita’s husband and Giovani’s co-worker at the factory are all traipsing through the apartment. There are also some additional characters (O’Connor yet again) who look suspiciously like law enforcement, class war cuisine, and opportunities for Antonia to improvise elaborate fables about the Pope and the saints.

The challenges of performing much of Dario Fo’s work outside of its Italian context can be daunting. Italy’s political history is only vaguely understood in the United States. The pervasiveness of the Roman Catholic Church in Italian society means that even when Fo lampoons either the faith or the institution, it is with an expectation that the audience knows intimately what is being made fun of – while by contrast, American theater practitioners are often very touchy on the subject of religion – in part because of the pluralism of the cities where most theaters are hosted. Most importantly, much of American theater is still caught up in naturalistic drama, while Fo and his collaborator and wife, actor Franca Rame (her own role in Fo’s writing process was akin to a dramaturg), are inheriting traditions of clowning and physical theater that reach back to the commedia dell’arte and to medieval jongleurs. American theater departments rarely train actors in the sort of hyperactive physicality necessary to perform Fo’s works, and so when they are performed in the States, directors often try to translate his plays into either naturalistic farce or heavy-handed agitprop.

Thankfully, Nu Sass avoids those pitfalls and instead embraces the pratfall. It is an asset that Director Kristen Pilgrim has a background as a fight choreographer; she understands how vigorous actions tell a story – and how easily an arabesque can lead into a kick to the face. While the plot is driven by Antonia’s scheming and efforts to explain one thing after another with absurdity after absurdity, it takes a capable cast of clowns to carry the play.

Steven Soto, Mary Myers, Francesca Marie Chilcote and Colin Connor in Dario Fo’s 'Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay!' from Nu Sass Productions. Photo by Mara Sherman.
Steven Soto, Mary Myers, Francesca Marie Chilcote and Colin Connor in Dario Fo’s ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay!’ from Nu Sass Productions. Photo by Mara Sherman.

As Margherita, Myers is hilarious as both accomplice and unintended victim of Antonia’s fabulism, forced to waddle about with stolen goods under her coat, prompted to shiver, and cry out as if in labor. Connor physicalizes the protean nature of Giovanni, who must turn shift from utter disbelief to utter credulity mid-sentence, with arms, legs, and torso all seeming to want to go in different directions. Soto’s Luigi is perhaps the most unfortunate character of all, an everyman sad sack who, instead of contending directly with Antonia’s antics, is dealing with how both his wife and his best friend have been roped in (nonetheless the choreographic invention where Connor and Soto mime through their shifts on the assembly line is a treat.) O’Connor embraces the contradictory roles of the two strutting Sbirros – the laid-back cop who expresses solidarity with working-class rebellion, and the authority figure with bizarre beliefs about advances in obstetrics – the men of Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay! seem as clueless about female anatomy as many of our elected officials.

While based on the Ron Jenkins translation, this production also avoids some of the more problematic aspects of his free adaptation (whether or not his efforts to link the racial injustice that sparked the 1992 Los Angeles Riots jibe well with Fo and Rame’s anarcho-feminist critique of Italian capitalism can be the subject of another essay). Instead, the troupe has gone back to Fo’s original text at points and provided their own translation of certain scenes (Fo has always encouraged companies to adapt his work as they see fit.)

Lighting designer Alie Heiman creates all sorts of over the top effects as Antonia and Giovanni’s electricity is cut, the window shutters are opened and closed, and miraculous encounters with Popes and other saints are recounted. O’Connor has managed to create a set that by all appearances is a cramped apartment, yet is also spacious enough for slapstick comedy.

Even though many theater companies have behaved as if their role is one of entertaining the bourgeoise and elites of their cities, the American economy has transformed over the past few decades. So much of the American workforce now is made up of temporary and contract employees with few benefits and little job stability. Positions that require university degrees oft times still don’t provide for a middle-class lifestyle. Political forces are attempting to legislate strictly defined gender roles even as parts of the culture seem to be going in a completely different direction. Consequently, this play about a 1970s Italian housewives’ insurrection is relevant now – and Nu Sass performs it with a much needed anarchic spirit.

Running Time: Two hours including one intermission.

Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay! plays through November 18 at Nu Sass at Caos on F at 923 F Street NW, Washington DC. For tickets, purchase at the venue or order online.

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Ian Thal
Ian Thal recently moved back to Washington, D.C. after a many-year-long sojourn in the Boston area where he was Senior Contributor and theater critic for The Arts Fuse. He has also written for The Clyde Fitch Report and served as Community Editor for The Jewish Advocate. He was an invited guest of the Kosovo Writers' Union after some of his poetry was translated into Albanian. He was honored for his work teaching mime and commedia dell'arte performance to young people by the Massachusetts Senate. Ian holds both an MA and BA in Philosophy from Boston College and SUNY Purchase and is a playwright with many strange ideas of what belongs on stage.

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