They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! Italian Comedy at UMass

Screenshot 2023 12 01 at 10.21.30 PMTonight’s theater performance of They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! at UMass’ Rand Theater came at us fast and furiously… the pace never let up as the eight actors on stage swooped, dodged punches, and flailed about in exaggerated poses as they performed one of Italy’s most beloved socialist comedies, written in 1974 by Dario Fo.

Fo has been called the most widely performed contemporary playwright in world theater, and this play is one of his most famous.

The scene is an apartment in Italy and Antonia (Anne Gallivan) and Margherita (Kitty Ryan) discuss what happened at the grocery store. As the two women begin chanting the play’s title, they admit that, like the others in the crowd, they’ve stolen these ten bags of groceries but damn it, they raised the prices, and we already owe too much back rent to afford it. We won’t pay!

But the two women know that their husbands, Giovanni (Caleb Koval) and Luigi, (Benjamin Kaplan) aren’t going to go for these shenanigans. So they hatch an “I Love Lucy” style caper to hide the bags of groceries…quick, see if these can fit under your sweater, Antonio suggests to Margherita in hurried up panic when Giovanni is at the door.

As improbable as it may sound, (it’s political satire!) the dopey Giovanni believes it, and more hijinks ensue.  She must be pregnant, Antonia explains, even though they’ve only been married five months.

Giovanni accepts the premise and then makes his case about another unfair situation–his Ford Factory position is moving to Eastern Europe and he might lose his job. Another greedy ‘man’ out to screw the poor Italian public.  Caleb Koval’s portrayal of the excitable character is very well done, he’s got everything Italian down to the gestures and hand motions, yet there is no accent, it’s flat American English.  Margherita (Kitty Ryan) also gets full on slapstick as she flops down on the bed with her fake stomach full of groceries and avoids being detected.

On the table is the only scrap of food left, (because Giovanni doesn’t know about all the pasta, bread and meat that’s hidden in the apartment).   Its a tasty combination of…dog and cat food.  But for some reason he fixates on that can, he thinks he needs to eat it and we watch him again in a series of hiliarious Italian mannerisms.  He thinks he must force himself to take a bite.

One of the things that is both limiting and interesting about the play is how Italian it feels. It is like watching Italian TV, with the slapstick, shrieking characters rocketing around the room, mixing sight gags with exaggerated pantomime, and raising voices to emphasize points. People we know don’t talk like this, even without any Italian accents; it’s clear that the humor is from another era. It’s a bit like watching a very old black-and-white sitcom; the jokes and physical comedy of  the Dick van Dyke Show is still funny, but it’s dated.

The backstory is that this political theater comes from the days back in 1974 when the Italian government was going through a period of intense austerity.  The President of Italy told citizens that they must cut back on all household expenses, and spend less for the sake of saving the economy.  But soon after, merchants began raising prices and 1970s consumers were very upset with their government. In several real life instances shoppers just walked out with groceries without paying, or hopped on the subway and didn’t pay.  ‘There should be no fare at all on the metro, the company should pay for the ride to get to work,” Luigi fumes.

It’s no way to run a government, but the people were fed up.

They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay, by Dario Fo, directed by Benham Alibakhshi. Rand Theater Bromery Center of the Arts, UMass.  Runs Dec. 2, 6, 7, 8 at 7:30 pm, Dec 2 at 2 pm.  Tickets