Poverty, Italian-Style, Comes Home to Berkeley: ‘We Won't Pay'

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On the corner of Eighth and Parker in the western end of Berkeley, a couple of dusty bookshelves sit out on the sidewalk. The shelves are loaded down with paperbacks authored by everyone from Shakespeare to V.C. Andrews. Propped up nearby is a chalkboard with a message printed neatly across it: "Pay what you think is fair."

Coincidentally, just down the block at the Eighth Street Studio, the Shotgun Players are putting on a play that kicks off as a group of women, outraged over price hikes at the local grocery store, pay what they think is fair-which in their case turns out to be nothing. That such progressive thinking is commonplace in Berkeley makes the Players' update of Nobel Laureate Dario Fo's 1974 play, "We Won't Pay, We Won't Pay!" work so well.

And update it, they have. Director Rebecca Novick has not only changed the setting from Fo's native Italy to the more local Oakland, but altered a lot of the dialogue to fit the new millennium. This spattering of political and social humor, while directed at rather obvious targets- who could not poke fun at the Homeland Security Administration and IKEA?-is still fresh enough to provide some of the best laughs in the show.

Not that Fo's original doesn't have laughs of its own. As we follow Antonia (Katja Rivera), one of the women who "robbed" the grocery store, Fo peppers the tale with plenty of humor. To keep her morally upright husband, Giovanni (Clive Worsley), from uncovering her criminal behavior, Antonia convinces her friend Margherita (Andrea Day) to stuff her jacket with pilfered groceries and pretend to be pregnant.

Before long, Antonia, too, is forced to don a faux belly. Their lumpily swollen stomachs are equally hilarious and alarming, because they can only serve to remind the audience how frightfully thin all the characters are. Giovanni and Antonia-he in threadbare overalls and she in a loose-fitting dress-both seem painfully gaunt. These visual prompts, a combination of good casting and good costume design, force the serious issue behind Fo's clowning to the forefront: these people are starving.

As a comedic play that deals with "serious issues," "We Won't Pay!" walks a fine between being ridiculous and preachy, and the Players' production manages the tightrope act admirably. At first, Antonia and Margherita kicking clearly empty cereal boxes and egg cartons around the simple, one-room set seems absurd. But as Margherita's husband, Luigi (Ian Petroni) says, "I'm not the one making you crazy, it's the way we live." If the characters and situations in "We Won't Pay!" seem crazy, it's because the world is crazy.

The actors handle both the light and the weighty well. It's at once hilarious, revolting and painful to watch Giovanni prepare to eat a can of dog food or Antonia and Margherita fill their bellies with food by stuffing their jackets instead of their mouths. Yet the most show-stealing performance of all is that of Kevin Kelleher, who plays four different "Sundry Clowns." The play cleverly references its thrift in employing the same actor to perform four parts, and Kelleher, utilizing a variety of accents and the world's worst fake moustache, makes each one a comedic treasure.

Still waiting for the funding for their new theater on Allston Street, the Players make good use of the borrowed space of the Eighth Street Studio. Every set piece becomes just that-a setpiece.

After the show, the audience trailed out into the lobby-really an open warehouse space, in this location-to find a table overflowing with food: cheese, crackers, cookies of every kind. All of it available for whatever price we deemed fair to pay-which for most people, was nothing. It was an unexpected, thoughtful gesture-and completely appropriate for such a well- thought-out play.

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