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Cockroach Theatre’s ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ heads to the farce side

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From left: Annette Houlihan Verdolino, Christopher Brown, Brent Mukai, Jillian Austin and Brett Alters.
Photo: Miranda Alam / Special to the Weekly

When Downtown’s Cockroach Theatre asked director Allegra Libonati to name her dream project, she had an immediate answer: “Right now, the only thing to direct is [late Italian playwright] Dario Fo. He uses humor, satire and clowning for a real humanitarian take on events. He’s a hero.”

Libonati chose the Nobel Prize-winning playwright’s piece Accidental Death of an Anarchist. “This play is powerful,” Libonati says. “It’s a perfect artist response to corruption.”

Libonati first directed Accidental Death a little over a decade ago. She wanted to speak to the “humanitarian atrocities and cover-ups” of the Iraq war and the Bush administration. Today, she’s equally moved to resist the Trump administration and the current political climate. “It’s very inspiring to feel like there’s a play that could contain how we’re feeling—both then and now.”

The play is inspired by a true event: In 1969 Milan, an anarchist group member fell from a police station window after being arrested and questioned for a crime he didn’t commit. His death was ruled an accident, but was it really? The play begins at this point, diverting from history to absurd fiction: An escaped mental patient with a mania for impersonation investigates the death by showing up at the police station and putting the authorities on trial.

“Farce is about rage,” Libonati says, recalling the words of a mentor who grew up under Soviet rule. “The laughter comes from a sense of rage. It’s time for a farce right now in our country.”

Still, a play needs to entertain, or it won’t have much of an audience. And Libonati says Accidental Death is plenty entertaining. “It’s a hilarious madcap farcical comedy,” Libonati says. “You have the best time ever and then go home and say, ‘What?’

The cast is full of actors who are Strip veterans, with résumés that include Blue Man Group, Menopause the Musical, Shotspeare and more. Strip performer and clown Brett Alters—his credits include The Beatles Love, Le Rêve and an upcoming role at Opium—plays the lead role of The Maniac.

“It’s a huge opportunity for me to take on this incredibly meaty role that’s full of substance,” Alters says. “It was originated by a master clown, master actor and master storyteller. To channel him and have the opportunity to walk in his footsteps is an incredible honor.”

Actor Jillian Austin says the biggest challenge of performing in this show is trying not to laugh. She says Alters is always cracking her up, especially when he “pulls out fun stuff like tiny hands.” Beyond the clowning, Austin loves how Fo’s plays are relevant today and can create catharsis for their audiences: “The cool thing about political farce is you can make people laugh but also make them think.”

ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST Through February 10, days & times vary, $20-$25. Art Square Theatre, 725-222-9661.

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