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Socialist Slapstick Sitcom: When the Ricardos, Kramdens and Conners Met Bakunin, Proudhon and Marx

Ed Rampell: With this deft cross-genre philosophical blending Pay! creates a heady anarchic concoction mixing loads of laughs and antics with a tumbler of leftwing politics, as Groucho Marx mingles with Karl Marx.
With this deft cross-genre philosophical blending Pay! creates a heady anarchic concoction mixing loads of laughs and antics with a tumbler of leftwing politics, as Groucho Marx mingles with Karl Marx.

Kaili Hollister and Lynde Houck, photo by Ashley Randall.jpg

CAN’T PAY? DON’T PAY! Theater Review

The Actors’ Gang’s production of Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay! is a synergy of Hollywood slapstick a la the Three Stooges and American TV show s like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners and Roseanne crossed by and infused with the anarchist and socialist politics of Mikhail Bakunin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Karl Marx. This merry madcap Marxist mash-up puts the “commie” into sitcom. To paraphrase the Stooges’ Curley: “Moe! Larry! Che!”

With this deft cross-genre philosophical blending Pay! creates a heady anarchic concoction mixing loads of laughs and antics with a tumbler of leftwing politics, as Groucho Marx mingles with Karl Marx.

With this deft cross-genre philosophical blending Pay! creates a heady anarchic concoction mixing loads of laughs and antics with a tumbler of leftwing politics, as Groucho Marx mingles with Karl Marx. As the wash hangs on outdoor clotheslines in their working class neighborhood (set by Bob Turton), two women frenetically dash onstage amidst audience members sitting up front and personal in the seating configuration (if you don’t want to be part of the action or have thesps’ drool on you, request tickets for the more traditional seats). Kaili Hollister has the Lucy Ricardo/Alice Kramden/Roseanne Conner-like role as Antonia. As her female sidekick Margherita, Lynde Houck plays the Ethel Mertz/Trixie Norton/Jackie Harris-type part.

Squeezed by rising prices, low, stagnant wages, downsizing and outsourcing, the blue collar Antonia participates in a spontaneous direct action that breaks out in a grocery store. This causes the pigs to overreact (can you say “Ferguson”?), as they crackdown on looters. The ever-humorous Steven M. Porter plays multiple parts, including a progressive police sergeant and a by-the-book detective, assisted by Danielle Powell in and out of uniform also in multiple roles, pursue the food rioters and raid their district.

Antonia runs for her life and ensnares Margherita in her harebrained scheme, as the gals get in trouble with their proletarian husbands, too. (As Lucy expresses her consternation - see circa second 16 in this clip.) As Antonia’s hubby, factory worker Giovanni, Jeremie Loncka has the Ralph Kramden/Ricky Ricardo/Dan Conner role, and I half expected him to say to his kooky wife spinning cockamamie schemes: “Antonia, you have some ’xplaining to do!” As Margherita’s lesser half, Thomas Roche has the Fred Mertz/Ed Norton (the sewer worker immortalized by Art Carney!) part. Hilarity ensues - along with heaping doses of lefty consciousness-raising. During the intermission recorded versions of pro-labor songs such as Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” with the lyrics “Oh, you can’t scare me I’m sticking to the union!” were played.

Although the Gang’s current production is U.S.-set, why do all of the characters’ names have the flavor of Italy? Simply because, to paraphrase Jack and the Beanstalk: “Fi-fi-FO-fun, I smell the blood of an Italian!” That is Pay!’s author, Dario Fo, whose Non Si Paga! Non Si Paga!, which can be translated as We Can't Pay? We Won't Pay! and Low Pay? Don't Pay!, was first performed 1974 in Milan (when Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmuller was making similarly-minded movies) and by the San Francisco Mime Troupe in 1979.

cant pay

Who was this Lombardy-born wag and what is his relationship with The Actors’ Gang? Why, who better to answer this question than the company’s co-founder and artistic director, Tim Robbins. The Oscar-winner told me about this Italian around a year ago, when The Gang opened Fo’s Accidental Deathof an Anarchist, which co-starred Pay!’s director Bob Turton and was directed by Will Thomas McFadden:

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 Deathof an Anarchist [which premiered in 1970] 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.”

Rampell: “What was your relationship with Fo?”

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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 3[8] 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.” Rampell: “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.”

In early February 2019 The Gang actually presented two staged readings of what’s now called Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay! at Culver City’s Julian Dixon Library. The two-acter currently on The Gang’s boards at its Ivy Sub-Station is presumably the fruity fruition of that earlier endeavor. Helmed by Gang stalwart Bob Turton, the ensemble manages to rollick and frolic without running off the rails (although at one point a shouting Loncka as Giovanni adlibbed a droll dribbling apology to theatergoers ensconced in seats in the stage area for spraying spittle upon them).

As his daffy direct action-taking wife, Kaili Hollister is the cast’s standout. Not only because of her frantic energy as the protagonist who instigates the wacky story, but due to her completely different performance as the seductive, subversive Julia in The Gang’s recent adaptation of George Orwell’s terrifying 1984. Although I saw 1984 only a few months ago, to tell you the truth, I completely didn’t recognize Hollister as Antonia - a sure sign of a thespian of wide range and deep talent. She plays her sitcom-referencing role as if I Love Lucy’s lead was a radical.

Which leads your film/TV historian reviewer to this final point. During the Red Scare, in 1953 Lucille Ball was actually summoned to testify (albeit privately owing to her superstar stature) before the House Un-American Committee about her alleged Communist Party ties. According to the Socialist Worker: “Ball listed her party affiliation as ‘Communist’ when she registered to vote in 1936 and 1938. In 1936, she sponsored a CP candidate for the state's 57th district. She signed a certificate that stated, ‘I am registered as affiliated with the Communist Party.’” (See here.)

Ball also starred with Dick Powell as a Clifford Odets-like lefty dramatist in the 1944 Popular Front comedy Meet the People, co-written by CPUSA member Ben Barzman, who later went into exile to avoid testifying before HUAC and the Hollywood Blacklist. Before becoming a sitcom legend Ball also appeared in MGM’s 1943 Thousands Cheer, co-written by CPUSA members Paul Jarrico and Richard Collins, who likewise had their brushes with HUAC.

In any case, with millions of dollars at stake, Ball’s real life and onscreen husband, Cuban musician Desi Arnaz (Ricky Ricardo), declared at the time: “The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that's not legitimate.” (BTW, along these lines it’s interesting to note that Lucy and Ricky had one of television’s rare multi-culti relationships for decades.)

With its proletarian promiscuous genre-mixing, this combustible, comedic, communistic comedy is sheer good fun and timely. As January’s massive Venice Beach Bernie rally - where The Gang’s Robbins endorsed the senator alongside AOC and Cornel West - and Sanders’ campaign suggests, the stirrings of socialism are in the air. Fo’s satire has a rousing ending, suggesting that with the Revolution, the working class will go - in the immortal words of that Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden - “To the moon!”

The Actors’ Gang’s is presenting Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay! through March 28 at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232. For tickets: (310)838-GANG.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell 

L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell co-authored the third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”available here. Rampell recently received a theatre critic award.