By James Foritano
Back in that famously conformist era of the 1950s, the infamously nonconformist actor and teen heart-throb James Dean was asked, “What are you rebelling against?” Forever defining what it meant to be cool, the rebel without a cause responded: “What have you got?” solidifying himself and“The Wild Ones” as timeless benchmarks of youth rebellion.
In “Mistero Buffo,” current being performed at Boston’s Modern Theater, could Dario Fo be channeling Dean — or vice-versa? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Iconoclasts bloom on the family tree where they will, how they will.
Dean would die in his sports car in a horrific intersection collision on a desert California highway. Fo, having deserted his post in Mussolini’s fascist forces more than once, sought life in the desert wastes of Italy’s war-torn 1940s and ‘50s.
In the midst of a suite of skits which are only a few of the original number that form Fo’s “Gospel,” two characters, hoping to avoid the Christ of legend, settle on Rome as a refuge where, “He would never go!”
That line sets the tone for Fo’s witty, satirical re-examination of the verities of Christian myth, and any other ‘verities’ which happen to step on the maestro’s omnivorously sensitive corns.
But tone, though essential, doesn’t communicate everything in Fo’s stinging, comedic sallies.
Take away James Dean’s mumbling delivery, throw a cloak over his minimalist tics of loathing, eloquent shrugs of disdain and he’s a ‘stiff’ — and a mute one at that.
Let’s acknowledge the mysteries of influence between rebels as unfathomable, and not wrong-headedly trace a direct line from the spirit of the tragically dead James Dean to the disillusioned soldier barely alive in Mussolini’s fascist fantasies.
Let’s just say that Fo, the wit, and Fo, the satirist, discovered his body as he leapt from post-war radio to the stage, to Italian television, and there, before being bludgeoned with a 10-year-long ban, learned to inhabit his irreverent stories with a lively Italian version of James Dean’s eloquent, mumbling minimalism. Three local actors — Debra Wise, Remo Airaldi and Benjamin Evett — animate these four tales of a ‘gospel’ straight from a ‘hell’ of incendiary humor and scathing earnestness a la Dario Fo.
They channel Dario’s outrageous wit plus their own contemporary insights through the urgency of wandering medieval jester/actors called, in Italian, “Giullare.” The Guillare were compelled to create an indelibly irreverent impression for hungry audiences in that brief time before the authorities hunted them out of the nooks and crannies that were their village stages.
If you’ve ever heard a storyteller stop their tale with the humble admission that, “You really had to be there…,” you’ll be delighted and moved to travel with actors who are ‘there’ for you across vast distances of time and time again, pain and pleasure and the equally vast distances between contemporary lunacy and uncommon ‘common sense.’
Who knows if sitting right beside you, whispering into your inner ear, won’t be other fruits of that eternal seed, dispensing the juice and the itch of satire in every guise and tongue?
(Suffolk University and The Poets’ Theatre presents “Mistero Buffo” through March 26 at the Modern Theatre, 525 Washington St., Boston, Mass. Remaining performances take place on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. and on Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (800) 838-3006 or visit http://www.suffolk.edu/ModernTheatre/events/122.html).