Tour de Farce

Farce is a dying art. Too much inane TV has all but killed it. Thankfully, Dario Fo, the playwright whose irreverent loopy genius earned him a Nobel Prize for literature, is still around to show us how it's done. Without a doubt, Accidental Death of an Anarchist -- his blade-sharp comedy that skewers everything from misbehaving police to hypocritical journalists -- is one of the funniest, most provocative plays to come to Houston in months.

And director Steve Garfinkel handles Fo's remarkable script with such wonderfully wicked glee that it makes the production among the best offered by Main Street Theater this season.

Jef Johnson is terrific as the bald-headed "insane" suspect who's arrested for impersonating a psychiatrist. He snorts, wiggles and raspberries his way around an Italian police station, reveling in Fo's rowdy love of everything silly. Johnson, with physical comic capabilities so boundless that I half expected his head to spin, is big with onstage joy. He chases plastic "eyeballs" that go skittering across the floor, greets the world with a floppy rubber hand, then butt-kicks the cops when they misbehave. He acts out every bad-boy's dream, and he does it in great Stooge style.

More impressive, though, is Johnson's mindful understanding of Fo's political agenda and his rage against the tyranny of authority. An unknown anarchist has supposedly committed suicide while being questioned by the police. The veins across Johnson's bald head bulge and pulse when he tears apart the bungled stories put forth by the policemen to hide their own guilt.

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Johnson's suspect wanders around the station house creating havoc wherever he goes. He enters a room and introduces himself as a judge. The astonished police captain moves to shake his hand, exclaiming, "A judge; Christ!"

"Please don't call me that," says the suspect, "you'll only confuse me."
Fo's liquid script invites improvisation, much like the roving shows of the commedia dell'arte from centuries past. Main Street's production glimmers with blasphemous intelligence, suggesting such outrageous but absolutely reasonable images as a Monica Lewinsky-shaped Pez dispenser.

The smaller roles, played by Ginny Lang, John Kaiser, Tod Greenfield and Robert Leeds, lend Johnson's suspect strong support. Shane Merchant's set is the best seen at Main Street. The station house's green walls are smeared with dirty fingerprints, as is the tiny window from which the anarchist supposedly threw himself. One of the best scenic details, which might be attributable to the imagination of prop designer Jean Johansen, is the Pepto Bismol-pink Rubbermaid pitcher atop a shabby green filing cabinet.

These too realistic details add to the weird logic of this play, this energetic whip of Fo's imagination that examines the "thin line between truth and fiction," and the inherent danger of authority.

The Tony Award-winning musical The Life by Ira Gasman and Cy Coleman, celebrates the hard-knock existence of street whores, pimps and drug addicts. Hey -- it's a musical; in the world of musicals, all of life's little horrors become something to sing about. And if you can get beyond that premise, The Life is completely entertaining. Director Ron Jones and New Heights Theatre have a production full of strong performances and even memorable music.

The story focuses on Queen (Tamara Siler) and Fleetwood (Ilich Guardiola), a whore and her drug-addicted pimp. Of course these two weren't always shady. Once upon a time they "had a dream," which Queen tells us about in song. They've left Savannah, Georgia (though strangely, neither character has any Southern accent), to search out a better life in New York City, only to end up on the streets of Times Square.

Here they are pulled apart by Fleetwood's addiction. Only Queen can remember their original goal, which has something to do with good family values. She loves her man and wants to have his children.

As silly and contrived as this central story might be, the parade of characters who strut up and down the "streets" are charming. Mia Fisher's Sonja, the "tired old whore" of 26, is the most powerful presence. Her voice is clear, radiant and rich with emotional truth; most of all Fisher knows how to have a good time on stage. She struts, wriggles and dances through her songs, making heart-stopping connections with every moment on stage.

Another strong performance comes from Johanna Beth Harris as Mary, the wicked little blonde who tricks the whores into believing she's an innocent. And Jonathan McVay's JoJo is the slimiest street survivor to ever sing about greed. Bob Beare's Lacy, the cowardly but bighearted bartender, is warm and calm in an otherwise angry world (as angry as anyone in a musical gets, that is). All these performers hold up their end of the show, as does costume designer Patrick Boone, whose hiney-hugging hot pants and crimson suits make for an exciting visual effect. The Life is a solid, enjoyable night at the theater, though you probably won't want to bring the kids.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist plays through April 18 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. (713)524-6706. $13-$18.

The Life plays through April 10 at New Heights Theatre, 339 West 19th Street, (713)869-8927. $10-$20.

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