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CurtainUp DC Review
by Dolores Whiskeyman
I the Helen Hayes Awards had a category for the most obliging actor in a play, then Michael John Casey would surely win for his performance in Trumpet Vine Theatre Company's production of Abducting Diana.
Casey plays an inept kidnapper who is stripped nearly naked, chained up, doused with baking soda, smeared with ice cream, and locked in a refrigerator. He's also zapped with electric current, although fortunately for him, the wires aren't live -- I think.
This is broad comedy meant to be broadly played, and---for the most part-it is. Written by Dario Fo, the Italian master of political farce, Abducting Diana relates the story of a vampy publishing tycoon (Jenifer Deal) who is kidnapped for ransom, but quickly gets the better of her captors. As translated and adapted by Stephen Stenning, the play is set in modern-day London. It satirizes the incestuous worlds of politics, media, and power, skewering the unseemly ways in which politicians and publishers feed from each other.
As Diana observes, "A government can do what it likes to the economy, but a sex scandal really gets the putters going."
Deal leans into the part of Diana with vigor, slinking about the stage in form-fitting costumes designed by Joe Salasovich. Her scenes with Casey -- particularly in the second act -- are some of the best in the show, where the pair go into overdrive in a manic negotiation for the identity of the mastermind behind the crime. Their performances were unaffected by some potentially devastating technical glitches -- broken furnishings, locks that wouldn't unlock on cue. In a fashion that would have done Fo proud, Deal and Casey simply improvised.
Technical problems aren't confined to props, however. The Rossyln Spectrum Theatre has to be the worst space in Washington for producing a play. Originally built as a lecture hall, the theatre is plagued with atrocious acoustics. Simply making out what is being said is a challenge, and the task is compounded when the actors are moving wildly about spouting dialogue in thick British accents. Critical information was lost to my ears, making it difficult at times to follow the convoluted plot.
Despite these problems, director Rosey Strub manages to show the audience a pretty good time -- particularly in Act Two, when Fo's script picks up momentum. Strub has assembled an effective cast that, if not exactly made for this material, at least has fun with it. Steve Lebens, in fright wig and false nose, is particularly winning in the role of an Irish priest with unholy intentions.
But whether Fo's play translates to the American stage is another question. Winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature, Fo writes from a long European tradition of physical comedy, for which few American actors are well-trained. And I'm not sure that Fo's message has much meaning for a pampered American audience. Much of his work is highly topical -- in Italy. Fo has taken as his lifelong subject the economic injustices of capitalism and the complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in the oppression of the masses. (Not surprisingly, his message has not made him popular with the U.S. government, which twice denied him visas to perform here.) And even though the translator has attempted to reposition the story in the context of the British class struggle, on an American stage 15 years later, something doesn't quite go. Fo's edge is shaved away; the comedy is not so much political as situational. Despite an intermezzo that attempts to draw parallels between the title character and the current occupant of the White House, Fo's stinging satire devolves to an unfocused silliness. It's plenty funny all right, just not the kind of humor that would make a good capitalist squirm.