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theatre review

Accidental Death of an Anarchist’s lead, Kawa Ada, centre (with Oliver Dennis, left, and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), plays the Madman with unrelenting cartoon energy, like an Energizer Bugs Bunny.Cylla von Tiedemann

Wear a hard hat if you're venturing to Soulpepper to see Accidental Death of an Anarchist: You're going to get hit over the head, repeatedly, by this classic Dario Fo farce, relocated to Toronto and updated to the minute by director Ravi Jain.

If you have a soft noggin or don't enjoy dizziness, you may not appreciate the sensibility of Fo – an Italian satirist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1997 for "emulat[ing] the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden."

First premiered in 1970, Accidental Death of an Anarchist was an example of what Fo called "throwaway theatre," a play intended to have the immediacy of a newspaper op-ed. It responded to the scandal surrounding the suspicious death of an anarchist named Pinelli, who fell from a Milanese police-station window while being questioned about a series of bombings. Pinelli's name was eventually cleared – and, despite constantly shifting stories from the authorities, no one in the police force was ever held to account.

In Fo's comic interrogation of this tragedy, a Madman – played here with unrelenting cartoon energy by Kawa Ada, like an Energizer Bugs Bunny – is arrested by the same police for impersonating a psychiatrist.

After being released without charge, the Madman sticks around to cause havoc in the police station with his impersonation skills, putting on increasingly ludicrous costumes to imitate a judge, a police inspector and a bishop as he tries to get to the bottom of the death of Pinelli. As he convinces the police chief (Rick Roberts) and one his inspectors (Ins Choi) to re-enact the death of the anarchist, over and over, their story doesn't get straighter, but more and more absurd.

Fo's play certainly has enduring themes. As Jain points out in his director's note, the comedy engages with two of the five conversations that The Globe and Mail editorial board suggested Canadians need to have in 2015: One about how we treat people with mental illness in our justice system; another about the need for greater oversight of the police.

To make the connections clear and turn his production into true "throwaway theatre," Jain, with the help of dramaturg Paula Wing, has taken a straightforward translation of Fo's text by Jon Laskin and Michael Aquilante, and substituted 1970 Italian references with topical Canadian ones to Sammy Yatim, the 18-year-old who was shot dead on a Toronto streetcar by police; Edward Snowshoe, the federal inmate who committed suicide after being segregated in prison for 162 days; and the hearings into police misconduct at the Toronto G20 summit.

With Ada, an Afghan-Canadian actor and playwright, in the lead as the Madman, racial politics also become more central to the play than they are in Fo's original. In one scene, his jester notes that, "Statistically, every black man in Toronto has been stopped by police."

Despite the often heavy subject matter, Jain's production – which I saw in its final preview – is occasionally genuinely hilarious. It works best when Ada's Madman interacts with Roberts's wooden, Bill Blair-styled police chief. Roberts has perfect comic timing throughout, while the others often struggle to get the clownish style – except in a sequence of silly events that leads to a sing-along at the end of the first act that is the high point in Jain's zany meta-staging. (He's come up with a particularly clever way of moving the action from the third floor of the police station up to the fourth.)

Often, the production tries too hard for laughs – especially in slapstick sequences emphasized with sound effects that are simply tiresome. And while Ada's performance is virtuosic, he doesn't really connect with the audience – and so his winking at and baiting of us through the fourth wall doesn't always work. Part of the problem is that he has too much to say. A top-to-bottom new adaptation might have been a better choice than this overstuffed adaptation of a translation, as often Toronto circumstances clash with Italian ones in a way that is more confusing than amusing.

Ultimately, Fo and Jain's attempt to mix together commedia dell'arte-inspired performance with sharp-edged political satire is not my cup of tea – I felt like I was watching the Three Stooges host an episode of The Daily Show. While I felt hit over the head, my friend who came with me felt Jain's topical production hit the nail on the head. Can a commotion also be a conversation?

Accidental Death of an Anarchist continues to Feb. 21 (