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What kind of world is it when a simple, wholesome night of bondage, domination, and forced blood sampling between a media mogul and her sex slave is interrupted by phone calls on an unlisted number by a suspect fire brigade and the mogul’s possible double, followed by a kidnapping? Why, it’s Dario Fo’s world, of course, and you can sample it in all its feisty, anarchic glory at Trumpet Vine Theatre Company’s frantically frolicsome production of Abducting Diana.
A complicated premise, you say? Hey, things don’t really get knotty until the batty mother, the shady priest, and the exhibitionistic, gun-toting altar boy come into the picture, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As the chief kidnapper (C.L. Hopkins) concedes at one point, “I’m a little confused.” “I thought you might be,” says the titular kidnapped Diana (Jenifer Deal), in the sweet, soothing tone that indicates she’s cooking up some new scheme to destroy one’s world. Like any dominatrixor CEOworth her salt, she knows the value of the well-timed caress before the debilitating sting.
Let’s rewind. Fo, who is not your father’s Nobel Prize winner, is the Italian playwright, producer, manager, director, actor, mime, and caricaturist who, sometimes with wife and collaborator Franca Rame, has for half a century been waging theateron the street, in factories, occasionally even in auditoriumsagainst entrenched notions and entrenched classes. Abducting Diana is a hurtling, piquant ’90s British adaptation, by Stephen Stenning, of Fo’s ’80s play. Describing it is a bit like describing a holdup or a circus or a dream, but let’s try. Think of a Guy Ritchie screenplay starring the Monty Python players, with a special appearance by a midcareer Faye Dunaway, directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Does that give you some inkling of the production’s charged and compressed, yet oddly stylish, feel? Um, probably notwhich is fine, because you should really just go see it anyway.
As political agitprop, it’s not particularly interesting. You’ve heard these sorts of broad swipes at the media, government, business, and the clergy a million times before from a million aging counterculture gurus and their boomer apostles. But partly because Fo scythes the rhetorical pretensions of his fellow left-wingers as ruthlessly as he attacks the ruling interests, the play doesn’t come across as a propagandist harangue. And as an equal-opportunity sendup of tabloid prurience, PR spin, government condescension, religious hypocrisy, sexual self-delusion, and criminal mythologynot to mention sheer ineptitude by all of the aforementioned factionsit’s nail-bitingly, and occasionally laugh-out-loud, funny.
Of course, none of that would be if helmer, cast, and crew approached the work with too much solemnity or simply insufficient talent. The kidnappers are a sort of postmodern Three Stooges. Wearing rubber masks of Prince Charles, George Bush the elder, and Saddam Hussein to protect their identities, bickering, posing in goofy martial-arts stances, inexpertly fumbling about with butcher knives, chains, gags, gas masks, and the like, yet oddly concerned with London fashion trends, these blokes have a curiously endearing quality, in the way of all ambitious professionals not quite up to their tasks. If anyone ever writes a crime thriller for the Blue Man Group, he should talk to these fellas’ agents.
Hopkins as the head stooge is smashingly smarmy, and Joshua Drew is hyperactively engaging and convincingly close to snapping as the Saddam stooge. But it’s the Bush stooge (Michael John Casey), the primary hapless victim of Diana’s turnabout vengeance, who deserves not only acclaim but a long post-production spa holiday. He’s riotously clueless, self-absorbed, and appropriately terrified as Diana draws him into her seductive and vicious web, which begins, promisingly enough, with her thong panties, lace stockings, and, er, Vicks inhaler, but quickly descends into forced stripping, chains, rope, electrical appliances, petrol, baking soda, chocolate ice cream, temporary paralysis, and incarceration. Let’s just say that Hopkins more than earns his pay in this role, especially if he’s not being paid.
Lee Holzapfel as Diana’s mother is terrifically deranged. When Diana informs her that she’s been “made off with,” ol’ Mums is delighted, thinking it’s some sort of promising courting thing. Steve Lebens is smirkingly shady as a mysterious priest who wanders into the kidnappers’ den, collecting shots of booze and donations for the bell tower, and distributing gossip and spiritual hooey in return. And Ronald Woods, as Diana’s dense romantic conquest (for tonight), is perversely adoring and clearly up a creek several miles beyond his Penthouse-letters fetish fantasies.
But all these folks essentially serve as the dramatic trampoline on which Deal ascends, twists, and ricochets about in the role of Diana. Deal (who was nominated for a supporting-actress Helen Hayes Award for her work in the Keegan Theatre’s Dancing at Lughnasa) has “a wonderfully strong grip,” in the words of sex-toy Woods. He, for the record, is referring to her iron grasp on his buttocks, but the same could be true of her farce-fed lightning timing and flirtatiously nuanced seductiveness, dotted by a bit of drunken, giddy self-pity and ruthless Xena-worthy sadism. Of one lover, Diana reminisces, “He had little pet names for meWiggly Bums, Goebbels.” Precisely.
Director Rosey Strub cracks a whip of her own, keeping her players on sprint-treadmill pacing but then wisely backing off enough to let them have funand even an occasional ad lib.
A brief “intermezzo” on Saturday night, written by Deal and delivered by her and Casey (other nights will feature an intermezzo written by Washington City Paper contributing writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa), was actually the exception. While true to the spirit and tradition of Fo, the free-ranging stand-up’s unremarkable commentaries on the George W. Bush administration’s first 100 days and other broad targets only pointed up, by contrast, Fo’s furious focus and writerly agility. It takes great single-mindedness to create verbal chaos, and Trumpet Vine should leave that stuff to Fo and Dennis Miller and get on with the show.
Beyond that quibble, the troupe proved to be very much Fo’s friend. One needn’t be a socialist to enjoy this energizing, mind-stretching evening. Nor need one be Sen. Joseph Lieberman to suggest that, for this play, it might be best to leave the younger kidshell, all the kidsat home. That is, unless you really want to spend the next several weeks explaining to them not only kinky sex, but also electrical torture, anaerobic hallucination, persecution complexes, and the exorcism of a wiggly refrigerator.
As I mentioned, it’s Fo’s world. We’re just living in it. CP