By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
Matthew Kerrigan tiptoes onto the stage wearing a silk Japanese robe, stocking cap, and red nose. He’s a lowbrow Arlecchino for our times. He playfully pokes and jabs at the audience, leaving us feeling smarter as we discover his game, but like all commedia dell’arte zanni, we’ve been taken by the naughty clown. There’s something special in Kerrigan’s impish smile, and a simple beauty that a good joke can go back 400 years.
Kerrigan is a one-man show, playing a multitude of characters in Shaking The Tree‘s The Dissenter’s Handbook and Tale of a Tiger (Storia Della Tigre) by the Italian playwright and Nobel laureate Dario Fo.
Kerrigan is a shape-shifter through these performances, changing his face, voice, and posture from man to woman to deity to wild beast to common thief. He rolls in and out of character as easily as water flowing in a stream. His acting takes us out of our seats, our heads, our daily life, and into the land of fairytales.
Fo’s pieces, translated into English here by Ed Emery, are often called monologues, but are really more than that: they’re richly woven storytelling, grounded from the perspective of a trained commedia playwright, but one who takes charming images of fables and refashions them for the present day. His humor is spot-on, the kind you tend to get only when your best friend makes a witty aside.
The theater tradition of commedia dell’arte began in Italy in the 16th century, and is comprised of stock characters who can be tailored to fit what we recognize: the maid, the lord, the fool, the butler. They fall into topsy-turvy messes, because as humans, we are given to natural mistake: falling in love, or being born jealous. The image of Harlequin in his diamond-patterned suit, the tears of Pagliacci, and the stormy relationship of Punch and Judy still have a place in our imagination. Shakespeare loved commedia, and as Oregonians love Shakespeare, we’ve followed suite with our own commedia tradition.
Fo, with his late wife and collaborator Franca Rame, has long been Italy’s court jester, taking on heads of state and the pontifications of Rome. He’s fashioned a 60-year career of making the reverent irreverent through fantastic off-color retellings of historical crimes. Fo’s adventures on stage did not go unnoticed: among his scrapes with powerful institutions, he’s been banned by the papacy, blackballed for 14 years by Italian television, and in the 1960s was consistently banned from entering the United States. In 1973, Rame was the victim of a violent political attack – kidnapped, raped, and beaten – because of their iconoclastic work.
It’s no small thing for Shaking the Tree and Kerrigan to take on Fo. The simple Mark Rothko-inspired set is a good canvas for Kerrigan to show his talent. When approaching Fo’s work, director Samantha Van Der Merwe’s consistent attention to detail, which is typical of Shaking the Tree’s productions, seems particularly necessary, and adds punch. You get a sense that Kerrigan and Van Der Merwe worked hard together to flesh out the stories, but also had fun bringing the characters alive.
Tale of a Tiger (Storia Della Tigre) tells of Remus and Romulus meeting up in Chang Kai-shek’s China. Kerrigan’s physical skills serve him, and the audience, well: he can wistfully turn his mouth into the jaws of a growling tiger, and believably have us checking the corners of our bed when he slips into the crotchety accent of the village grandmother. The story has a moral and a metaphor, but as with most of Fo’s work, the meaning is left up to you. Is the tiger’s tale about salvation, civilization, nature? Or is it just a good story?
The Dissenter’s Handbook is a relook at the Genesis stories – at how Eve got the shaft – and a surreal take on the Virgin birth. The funniest moments revolve around Mary and the Virgin of Carmine shrine. Two rapacious thieves are out to con Mary. Kerrigan plays her as the iconic blonde in blonde jokes, and his thieves are a Tom and Jerry cartoon,as if voiced by a hyper Willem Defoe. Kerrigan’s approach to Fo is exactly what’s required: a concrete physicality that is strong and yet malleable enough to become effervescent, to push the edge of the envelope to the point where the joke is made at the expense of our human natures.
The Dissenter’s Handbook and Tale of a Tiger continue at Shaking the Tree through December 26. Ticket and schedule information here.