The Church Strikes Back, Humor and Terror Tango

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No one expects the Italian Inquisition. Least of all Menocchio (Charles Dean), the title character of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's new play.

"Menocchio," written and directed by Lillian Groag, tells the story of a miller living in 16th century Italy who has just the right combination of insatiable intellectual curiosity and lack of common sense to get himself into a lot of trouble. He's started thinking, his wife (Jeri Lynn Cohen) laments, and these words are punctuated by a clash of thunder and lightning, just like every mention of Frau Blucher's name in "Young Frankenstein."

The first act of "Menocchio" follows the eponymous character's foray into "thinking." He quests after books and expounds on his findings at the local tavern. These range from ridiculous (lands inhabited by dog-headed men) to far ahead of his time (the big bang theory). "Menocchio" is based on a true story and was obviously exhaustively researched; thus the many anachronisms of the show seem especially pronounced. Most of these are dialogue based, and while I can accept 16th century Italian peasants saying "fuck" and "shit" as it goes along with the fact that they're speaking English, I can't get over the weirdness of a priest exclaiming, "Jesus Christ!" in a decidedly un-priestly way. Accents are another point of oddness: Menocchio's wife speaks with the world's most Jewish faux-Italian intonation, while Menocchio himself could hail from Anytown, USA. And why is the Italian royalty British?

Yet all of these peculiarities can't take away from how darn funny "Menocchio" is; once you get over your head-scratching, they may even add to it. The humor runs the gauntlet between a crude debate about whose relatives violate sheep as opposed to poultry, to subtle Shakespearean references. (Says Menocchio about a recent trip to Venice: "I saw a black man with a white wife. He was seeing her off to Cyprus. They looked happy!") The wonderful thing is, it all works, out-of-place accents, blasphemous priests and all.

Then "Menocchio" pulls an "Into the Woods." After a upbeat, comic first act, the tone of the show takes a sharp turn. Menocchio, not content merely to think, also sees the need to think out loud, and this lands him before the Inquisition. There are still plenty of jokes to be had-one of the play's funniest moments, in fact, comes when Dan Hiatt plays every single one of the townspeople giving testimony before the Inquisitor, rapidly switching costumes, accents and characters, all in full view of the audience. But nothing can take away from how dark, and in truth, frightening, the play has become. Menocchio, cleverly dressed in a shirt with a collar like that of the tragic clown he is, cannot stop broadcasting his thoughts even to save his own skin, and the dénouement is filled with an inescapable sense of doom. Impressively, the horror of the second act is handled just as well as the humor of the first.

The only thing given the short shift in "Menocchio" is his wife, and thus all the women of the time, for which she is the sole representative. She disappears after the first act, dying quietly off-stage; what a shame, after being given a genuinely tender moment with her husband, to just vanish. "Women think with the flesh," she says as part of her denunciation of Menocchio's new hobby, to which my response is frankly, "huh? And men are from Mars?" The women in this story are what deserve more thought, especially considering that a woman authored it. No wonder the men of Menocchio's town are having their way with farm animals if there are really so few members of the opposite sex to be found.

Oh well; chalk it up to another eccentricity of the Menocchio-verse. There is still much to be said for this play, which is genuinely funny, and has a cool hydraulic set. Furthermore, it will leave you thinking.

Cue thunder and lightning.


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