By Ed Rampell
Since first taking the stage in 1982 with Alfred Jarry’s Ubu the King, The Actors’ Gang has, in terms of form and content, specialized in a subversive edge and wit. Directed by Will Thomas McFadden, The Gang’s latest envelope-pushing play Accidental Death of an Anarchist may not have caused the Culver City audience to riot like theatergoers at Ubu’s Parisian premiere did in 1896, but the outrageous company’s updating of Dario Fo’s 1970 satire is full of the social commentary and inspired stylization that are hallmarks of the 37-year-old troupe.
Oscar-winning actor and nominated director Tim Robbins, who mixes screen and stage work, co-founded The Actors’ Gang, and as its Founding Artistic Director has imparted his avant-garde sensibility as the stage’s scourge of the status quo to one of Los Angeles’ most daring, vibrant theatres. The globetrotting talent took time out from appearing in his latest movie to answer @This Stage’s questions about Accidental Death of an Anarchist and more.
@THIS STAGE: Why were you just in South America?
ROBBINS: We were invited to go on tour with our production of The New Colossus, the [the pro-immigrant/refugee] play I developed, directed and co-wrote with The Actors’ Gang. We were so blessed to perform this story in front of large audiences both in Chile, and Argentina, and to come to a deeper understanding of the universality and relevance of the story.
@THIS STAGE: Who was Dario Fo?
ROBBINS: Dario Fo, who lived from 1926 to 2016, was an Italian satirist, actor, playwright, comedian, singer, theatre director, stage designer, songwriter, painter and recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Dario was a huge influence on me. Reading Accidental Death of an Anarchist in college made me want to write for the theater. There was something radical and magical about Fo’s ability to address important issues in such a rip-roaringly comedic way. There was a direct line between Anarchist and my first original pieces with The Actors Gang – The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer, and Carnage, a Comedy. You could also say there is a direct line between Anarchist and the first film I directed, Bob Roberts.
@THIS STAGE: What was your relationship with Fo?
ROBBINS: I got to know Dario Fo in the last years of his life and spent many hours at his feet learning the lessons of the master. Dario came to see the Actors’ Gang production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I directed when we were on tour in Milan. His reaction to that performance, both in a painting he made and a note he wrote, pretty much became an artistic seal of approval, an affirmation by the master that the work that the Gang and I have been doing for the past 37 years has a true value, importance, and meaning. The artist that had inspired me as a young man had seen and recognized the through line between his inspiration and mine. He had validated my art. That was a huge moment for me. Over the next few years, Dario became a friend and mentor of mine and he inspired the development of a play steeped in the traditions of the Commedia dell’Arte that I wrote and directed called Harlequino: On to Freedom.
@THIS STAGE: Has The Actors’ Gang ever mounted a Fo play before? Tim, have you ever acted or otherwise been in a Fo work before? If so, which one, when did you present it?
ROBBINS: We have not mounted a Fo play before, which is why this is even more exciting. A theater group that The Actors’ Gang loved called the New Criminals did a great production in the early nineties of Accidental Death of an Anarchist directed by John Cusack.
[Note: In early February The Gang presented two staged readings of Fo’s We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay! at the Julian Dixon Library.]
@THIS STAGE: Accidental Death of an Anarchistpremiered in 1970. Yet there are very contemporary references, such as to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, which Fo could not have written (unless he possessed the gift of prophecy). Who wrote this “additional dialogue”?
ROBBINS: The Actors’ Gang uses improvisational techniques embraced and encouraged by Dario Fo. The “additional dialogue” has been a collaborative effort between director Will McFadden, actor Bob Turton and myself.
@THIS STAGE: The production has references to Trump. What do you think of the president and his regime?
ROBBINS: I’m waiting for the orange jumpsuits and the perp walks. They should all be in jail for their child separation policies alone. I’m no legal expert but I’m guessing that kidnapping could be defined as a “high crime or misdemeanor.”
@THIS STAGE: Do you think that even commedia dell’arte could do justice to Trump’s sheer buffoonery?
ROBBINS: I think commedia dell’arte has the power to portray archetypes that societies have fallen victim to throughout history, including this point in time.
@THIS STAGE: The play not only satirizes law enforcement, but also journalism. What does The Gang’s production of Accidental Death of an Anarchistsay about the Fourth Estate?
ROBBINS: This play encourages the press to be uncompromising in its pursuit of the truth, however uncomfortable that truth may be.
@THIS STAGE: Anarchists are often depicted in the media and popular culture as wild-eyed bomb throwers. Indeed, explosive devices are important plot points in Accidental Death of an Anarchist. What is the political philosophy of anarchy?
ROBBINS: Depends who you ask to define it. Some define it as “rejection of authority” or “self governance.” Or: “The absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal.” Others define anarchy with violence. The anarchist in this play is called a “madman” [Bob Turton], but he is arguably the most mentally and morally centered character in the piece.
@THIS STAGE: Tim, are you an anarchist? How would you politically describe yourself?
ROBBINS: I’d like to remain label-less. My roots are a combination of conservative Western individualism and East Coast leftist progressive. I think that we should be kind to each other and not lie or cheat or steal from the poor. I also believe that war is immensely immoral and I see no political circumstance or reasoning that justifies the killing of civilians.
@THIS STAGE: In the past you rather bravely took public stands offstage and offscreen on public issues, such as opposing the Iraq War. You did so in TV interviews and in The Gang’s great play Embedded, which you wrote and directed. How can art influence the public discourse and current events?
ROBBINS: It is the responsibility of art and artists to reflect public discourse and current events and to question what might be socially, politically, or morally abhorrent. Not doing so is, in itself, a political act.
@THIS STAGE: Accidental Death of an Anarchistis inspired by the actual suspicious death of a leftwing Italian activist while he was being interrogated. What can you tell us about the real event? Where and when did it happen?
ROBBINS: The play is based on events involving the Italian rail worker, Giuseppe Pinelli, who died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody in 1969. Pinelli was accused of the notorious Piazza Fontana bombing; he was cleared of the charges after his death. The events that led to Pinelli’s death have never been revealed.
I’m sure this isn’t the only instance where a “suspicious” death of an “anarchist” has occurred.
@THIS STAGE: Something that never ceases to amaze me is how art imitates life, how creative work often reflects what is happening in the world. How did October’s death of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi while he was apparently in the custody of Saudi authorities at an Istanbul consulate affect The Gang as it was rehearsing Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and eventually the production itself?
ROBBINS: What happened to Khashoggi is enraging, not only for its cold-blooded brutality but because it has revealed how craven we are to Saudi money and influence. This journalist isn’t the first to die at the hands of despots the US supports and probably won’t be the last. Khashoggi’s case is unique because we had access to the abominable details of the way his death was conducted, which revealed the lengths to which people in power go to in order to hold on to their power. That we are so cravenly complicit in the murder and cover-up is embarrassing, but unfortunately reflective of the devil’s bargain we have been making in US foreign policy for decades. We openly support dictators that commit human rights abuses throughout the world and have done so since the early 20th century. One would hope the Khashoggi murder would lead to a discussion of our historical support of brutal dictators, but it doesn’t seem to be going that way. Two months later and we are doing business again right out in the open and viewing this murder as an unfortunate “mistake.”
@THIS STAGE: The Gang’s current season is called “Hellzapoppin.” Why?
ROBBINS: This season is called “Hellzapoppin” because we wanted a word as joyously raucous as the plays we have chosen.
@THIS STAGE: Tell us about the other productions The Gang is presenting during the “Hellzapoppin Season”?
ROBBINS: One Act Festival: The Classic – March 14-Apr 20.
No Exit written by Jean Paul Sartre and directed by Brian Finney.
Krapp’s Last Tape written by Samuel Beckett and directed by Cynthia Ettinger.
One Act Festival: The Original – March 16-April 20. Tradition, written by James Edward Bane and directed by Tess Vidal. A Perfect World written by Lynde Houck and directed by Danielle Powell, March 14-Apr 20.
The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer, May 2-June 22, written by Tim Robbins and Adam Simon, directed by Bob Turton.
The Actors’ Gang presents Accidental Death of an Anarchist on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through March 9 at 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232. For info: (310)838-4264; http://theactorsgang.com/.
On March 6 at 6:00 p.m. The Actors’ Gang is presenting a reading of Mephisto by Klaus Mann that’s free and open to the public at the Julian Dixon Library, 4975 Overland Ave, Culver City, CA 90230 .