Magic Time! ‘They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!’ at Ambassador Theater

In politics, the expression “Marxist farce” could well be a slur hurled by some puerile and petulant presidential hopeful (you never know these days). In theater, however, the term “Marxist farce” has a reputable history and legitimate meaning as the name of a genre. It just doesn’t pop up much. In the economics of commercial theater, Marxist farce is a rare bird, and it’s no longer much seen in the U.S. indie theater scene either.

Peter Orvetti (Federal Agent), Hanna Bondarewska (Antonia), Darren Marquardt (Giovanni), Mitch Irzinski (Luigi), and Moriah Whiteman (Margherita). Photo by Valentin Radev.
Peter Orvetti (Federal Agent), Hanna Bondarewska (Antonia), Darren Marquardt (Giovanni), Mitch Irzinski (Luigi), and Moriah Whiteman (Margherita). Photo by Valentin Radev.

If you’re looking for one of these uncommon agit-tainments, you’d be hard pressed to find a more interesting and important example than Dario Fo’s They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! It’s the prolific Nobel Prize winner’s most produced play, written in 1974 and staged around the world since. Thanks to Ambassador Theater you can catch this classic work of working-class consciousness in a terrifically witty revival at Flashpoint.

In They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!, Fo borrows farcical techniques from the Commedia Dell’Arte and boulevard theater of his native Italy as well as the Theatre of the Absurd. American audiences unfamiliar with these European traditions might more likely recognize echoes of Abbott and Costello, I Love Lucy, Martin and Lewis, and Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners. Indeed Fo’s two hilariously scheming housewives Antonia (Hanna Bondarewska) and Margherita (Moriah Whiteman) could be sisters to Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz, and their two bombastic/bumbling husbands Giovanni (Darren Marquardt) and Luigi (Mitch Irzinski) could be doppelgangers for Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton.

Danny Rovin (Moving Crew) and Darreen Marquardt (Giovanni). Photo by Valentin Radev.
Danny Rovin (Moving Crew) and Darren Marquardt (Giovanni).
Photo by Valentin Radev.

The zany plot kicks off when consumer prices suddenly skyrocket and Antonia joins with other shoppers who are taking matters into their own hands by stealing food. Afraid her law-abiding husband Giovanni will find out, Antonia conceals some of the stolen food under her friend Margherita’s coat, with the result she looks  pregnant. The husbands’ bewilderment over this sudden fecundity makes for running gags aplenty. Meanwhile the law shows up in multiple guises (Peter Orvetti) intent on finding the incriminating food loot. The play is aimed squarely at a mass middle-of-the-road audience, cleverly constructed to keep ’em laughing all the way through to the very end, when Fo’s exhortation to build a mass movement of proletariat solidarity enters slyly if not subtlely, like a beneficent deus ex marxism.

Ambassador Theater is presenting the DC area premiere of a wonderful new-and-now translation by Jon Laskin and Michael Aquilante of Fo’s most recent rewrite (over the years he has continued updating it to keep pace with the dispiriting financial times), and it’s a real kick to listen to this adroit cast play it to the hilt. Zippily directed by Joe Martin and Danny Rovin, the production relocates the play from Milan to Newark, and changes Italian corporation names to contemporary U.S. behemoths like Citibank and Verizon. Also interpolated are some apt references to “the previous Pope’s” edicts against contraception and recent police activity in Baltimore and Fergusson. The first act is a hoot; the second act lags a bit. I sensed Fo overwrote a stretch. A labored subplot heist by Giovanni and Luigi supplants the far more madcap momentum begun by Antonia and Margherita. But that’s a script quibble.

The Ambassador Theater’s enjoyable production of They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! smartly showcases a classic by one of world theater’s most influential political consciences.

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Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.

They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! plays through March 26, 2016 at Ambassador Theater performing at The Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint – 916 G Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, purchase them at the door, or online.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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