When the Nobel Prize committee awarded Italian theater artist Dario Fo the 1997 award in literature, it called him a man who "emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden."
Anyone curious about how Fo does this should go see his 1974 class-struggle comedy, "We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!," at the Open Fist Theatre Company. One of Fo's most oft-performed works, the show blends wacky kitchen-sink comedy with diatribes on how the workers need to grab power from capitalist crooks. To an American sensibility, it's a strange and ultimately bizarre mix. It's as if Lucy, Ricky, Ethel and Fred decided to steal groceries because the system is corrupt.
A funny and lovely actress named Mary Mares plays Antonia, a ponytailed housewife married to a humorless worker named Giovanni (usually played by Eugene Buica; I saw director Ron West in the part). Husband and wife agree on the unfairness of their poverty; they differ on how to handle it. She joins in a grocery-store melee and ends up stealing things she can't use, like a box of rabbit heads. Then she has to hide her bounty from her husband and the police, who come looking for the stolen goods. Trouble ensues.
Fo is known for his love of commedia-like improvisation, but West directs the play tightly, with every physical and verbal joke pulled off just so. David Castellani, playing a schizophrenic police sergeant, is wonderfully loony. Once the speeches about a world with fewer corrupt bureaucrats start, tedium approaches. But Fo's vividly anarchic voice, the one heard in Stockholm, is still present.
"We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!," Open Fist Theatre Co. at Los Angeles Playhouse, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 26. $15. (323) 882-6912. Running time: 2 hours.