Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
Even after winning the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature, Italian playwright Dario Fo remains better known to most theatre-goers by reputation than direct experience. Only his "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" is widely produced. Renowned as a master clown, his comedy is a sophisticated blend of low physical humor, high intelligence, wild theatrical imagination, absurdist sensibility and biting political and social satire. In this enormously energetic production, skillfully directed by Matthew Kwatinetz, all of the elements of his work are readily apparent. While the political and social issues of "Archangels Don't Play Pinball" (1959) seem a bit dated, it remains smartly amusing, occasionally trenchant, and entirely engaging. The ensemble is talented and exceptionally hard-working, and while the leads fall a bit short of meeting the demands of this difficult role, the show itself steams ahead at a sometimes dizzying pace. It's fun and intriguing and mostly successful.
The plot is, literally, something of a shaggy dog story. Tiny is duped during a drunken party into believing that he has married a street-walker, Blondie. Then begins a dream in which Tiny becomes Sunny, Blondie becomes Angela, and through a bureaucratic snafu, Sunny discovers that he is actually registered as a dog, rather than a human being. He enters a dog-pound, switches roles with a Senator whose pants he borrows on a train, is arrested, interrogated, adopted by an illusionist who has dogs because he loves cats, and generally enters a sphere of possibility where little makes sense, normalcy is regulated and licensed, and anything is possible. Nothing goes particularly well, except his relationship with angelic Angela, and when he returns to the presumably conscious world at the end of the play, she is the only thing that remains. This is the anti-human, mechanized world of silent-film comedy, with the hero as innocent victim, imperiled by authoritarian and industrial forces. The comedic influences here are clearly Chaplin, Keaton, the Three Stooges, Mac Sennett and so forth, but Fo also borrows his moral outrage from Aristophanes and Greek high-comedy.
Gabriel Baron is physically gifted as a clown, and has plenty of energy and momentum, as well as the endless optimism of the eternally downtrodden. His small stature and nimble movement is exactly right for this character. What I felt his performance lacked was the pathos that gives a great clown his soul. When he wins Angela it feels more like a satisfaction to his weak ego than the critical component that will fill his heart. Part of the problem was Emily Chisholm's Angela, which also felt more superficial than it should have been. Particularly in a play where nothing in the physical world is reliably real, we need to absolutely believe that things of the heart are real. The romance simply wasn't convincing, and that left a terrible void in the emotional center of the play. Missing that, we had only the physical absurdity of the situation, story, and supporting characters, and while that was greatly amusing, it could not, in itself, be entirely satisfying.
The rest of the ensemble played quite well, with outstanding performances from Mark Boeker in a variety of roles, and Basil Harris as a man who looks remarkably like himself. I also enjoyed the smart characterizations of Alyssa Keene and Scott O. Moore. The set design, by Richard MacKenzie, was attractive and functional, ingeniously enabling a remarkable variety of locales while sustaining its intentional sense of theatrical artifice. Dan Dennis deserves particular credit for his witty and charming composition and musical accompaniment.
"Archangels Don't Play Pinball" is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable piece of dramatic arcana. It strives to entertain, and does. It wants to convince us with arguments for our humanity, and succeeds somewhat. It seeks to make us laugh and empathize and be dazzled in a fun-house mirror of the fundamentally preposterous nature of normality, and for the most part, it works. While not entirely convincing, it is thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable.