Seeing a production of Dario Fo’s Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas is not a typical night at the theater. Always inventive, at times hysterical, the two-hour one-man show tells the story of a sentimental young Italian sailor who comes upon a world of madness, brutality and oppression amidst a landscape of unmatchable beauty.
It’s the work of one of the world’s great dramatists, and yet it’s a far cry from more well-known comedy writers such as Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn and socially-minded dramatists like Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw.
For those familiar with the work of Fo, a controversial 75-year-old playwright and political activist, Johan Padan’s unorthodox blend of comedy, tragedy, intimacy and grandeur should come as no surprise. Long hailed as the modern inheritor of a tradition started by the medieval court jester, Fo has made a career of challenging those in authority through comedy that borders on buffoonery.
Fo honed his art by beginning with drawings and improvisations, going on to create a nearly countless number of what could best be called theatrical events—sublime performances occurring not just in theaters but on streets and in other atypical environments.
Many of these theatrical events have graduated to formal plays with Accidental Death of an Anarchist and We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay! being among the most famous. The majority of his inventions probably remain unwritten, though, existing only as the ephemeral manifestations of a constantly active mind.
The common thread linking Fo’s diverse creations, however, is a deeply serious core. Fo is not the type to elicit laughter that doesn’t also hurt on some level. The subjects he chooses to explore are those that even the most earnest and high-minded dramatists would be wary to bring on stage; the violence of the extreme right, worker uprisings, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For such boldness, Fo has won both hatred and acclaim. The esteem with which he is held in academic circles is often equaled by the animosity shown by many of his audiences—not just the middle-class theatergoers to whom Fo often refers with contempt, but also the working-class and politically ostracized elements of society toward which Fo’s work appears most sympathetic.
Unfazed, Fo has made it a personal crusade to find new spaces and new audiences for theater; his purpose, though, is not to expand its role as entertainment but to create from it a tool for social change. Like all such crusades, the setbacks have frequently rivaled the successes. But Fo persists, even when it seems he might have an excuse to rest.
His best excuse came in the form of the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature. Often the cap of a literary career, Fo turned his award into yet another opportunity to advance social causes through comedy. If nothing else, his Nobel lecture must be deemed one of the most unusual addresses in the history of the award.
Delivering an improvised speech entitled, “Against Jesters Who Defame and Insult,” Fo used a series of drawings to criticize the Swedish Academy for choosing him and then delivered a discourse on institutionalized forms of violence ranging from the execution of medieval court jesters to recent assassinations of intellectuals in Turkey.
Fo went on to tell the Academy that awarding him the prize was an act of courage that borders on provocation. Provocation is a subject about which Fo knows a thing or two.
Due to his anti-governmental stances, Fo was forbidden a visa to enter the United States throughout the 1970s and during most of the Regan administration. It wasn’t until 1986 that Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, succeeded in bringing the great Italian playwright and performer to American shores for the first time. True to form, Fo thanked President Regan for generating publicity by keeping him out of the country.
In a way, Johan Padan can be seen as a product of that experience, which comes close, at least thematically, to Fo’s own experiences in discovering America. Its main concerns are not unusual for Fo’s work: violence, ostracism and hypocrisy. But couched as they are in a story about coming to America, it would be surprising if the idea for the piece didn’t develop from Fo’s systematic exclusion from the land of the free.
More than a story, though, of America or American experience, Johan Padan is an account of all the world’s horrors. On stage, conquering Spaniards gleefully enslave, exploit, kill and mutilate natives, their consciences free from guilt because the natives have no souls. Natives, in turn, enslave, kill and eat Christian prisoners with equal joy.
Johan Padan discovers in America a microcosm of all human history: a disturbing tale of murder, pain and betrayal amidst the possibility of great happiness. At the heart of all this suffering lies a single concept: property. The Spaniards wish to settle the new lands, to control its riches, to own its people. The natives as well want riches to enjoy, slaves to own and land to live on. For Fo, nothing could be more anathema to happiness.
Like all great critics of capitalism, he is a dedicated materialist—dedicated, that is, to the joy of the material world. He takes immense pleasure in the shape, texture, taste, smell and mere existence of things. Nowhere is Fo more at home than in his exuberant account of the physical world. So deep is his love for all things physical that the idea of property seems repulsive—simply to experience the world should be joy enough.
Never would Fo subjugate his work, though, to the blunt expression of such a moral message—no one knows better than a jester that to preach is to lose one’s audience. His worldview is made clear, rather, by the aesthetic that permeates his work.
Thomas Derrah, the actor who brings Fo’s work to life in this production at the A.R.T., understands this. Taking the performances of Fo himself as a model, Derrah and director Ron Jenkins have put entertainment first and politics second in their Johan Padan.
If he didn’t speak a word, Derrah’s ebullient gestures would be enough to entertain an audience. In addition to his movements, though, Derrah tells Fo’s story with the passion and commitment of a true believer in the power of comedy.
Derrah acts the clown who knows what sadness is but refuses to be overwhelmed by it. He is not convinced that laughter is a medicine, but he knows that it’s at least a salve. It is something to help navigate through a terrible world, even if cannot make it better.
Unfortunately, recent events have grown too terrible even for the king of all jesters. Johan Padan was supposed to be the beginning of a three-part festival celebrating Dario Fo’s stage career; he and his long-time collaborator Franca Rame had scheduled a return to the A.R.T. for performances of Mistero Buffo and Sex? Thanks, Don’t Mind If I Do. Now, however, those performances have been canceled.
Fo and Rame have themselves declared their satirical works unfit for the current climate in America and around the world. The two admit that they have performed in times of crisis and of mourning before as part of their commitment to political theater; but then, their works were born from those events and told their stories.
Now, even a man best known for his persistent vociferousness, has declared that it is a time for silence.
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