Review: ‘Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas’

Italy's Nobel Prize-winning leftist playwright and comedian Dario Fo enjoys taking potshots at the status quo, and in this somewhat Swiftian monologue he takes great glee in rewriting history and giving the shaft to the Spanish Conquistadors and the Roman Catholic Church.

Italy’s Nobel Prize-winning leftist playwright and comedian Dario Fo enjoys taking potshots at the status quo, and in this somewhat Swiftian monologue he takes great glee in rewriting history and giving the shaft to the Spanish Conquistadors and the Roman Catholic Church. Both director-translator Ron Jenkins and American Repertory Theater stalwart Thomas Derrah, who performs the monologue, are having a ball with it.

There’s nothing subtle or deep here: Fo is perfectly happy to be broad and obvious. The script and Derrah’s schtick do become repetitive (at two hours plus intermission, cutting is needed). But there’s fun to be had in both Fo/Jenkins’ wordplay and Derrah’s very physical performance. He impersonates everything from castanets and fireworks to turkeys, pigs and iguanas.

The narrator, Johan Padan, is an Italian who flees first Venice, then Spain, during the Inquisition, lest he be roasted alive. He jumps aboard several ships, including one of the vessels in Columbus’ fourth and last voyage to the Caribbean, and ends up in Santa Domingo and Florida. Along the way he learns that the so-called savages of the Americas are a good deal less savage than the Europeans. Fo happily turns the discovery and colonizing of America on its head.

Jenkins’ English translation is full of contemporary Americanisms, vulgarities and groan-inducing gags: “The Navy was in the nave” (joke describes what happened when a hurricane blew the Venetian Navy into a church); “Inca is the short form of inconsolably pissed off.” And because Fo is as much a physical comic as a verbal one, Derrah fills his performance with leaps and dances, grimaces, gobblings, oinkings and much arm-waving.

Derrah performs in rehearsal clothes on an empty stage. The only visual help is a series of paintings by Fo illustrating the piece. The first suggests he studied with Chagall; those following revel in nudity and erotica.

At times the script gets too whimsical for comfort and the performance a bit too campy. But edited down to a manageable length, perhaps minus an intermission so that it gets to its Conquistador- and Church-bashing faster, “Johan Padan” might well be given other performances in special circumstances. Here it’s part of a Fo festival that also includes performances by Fo himself and his wife Franca Rame. Not bad for a man who was once banned from entering the U.S.

Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas

Loeb Drama Center, Harvard U., Cambridge, Mass.; 556 seats; $35 top

Production

An American Repertory Theater and Provincetown Playhouse presentation, in association with the Underground Railway Theater, of a monologue by Dario Fo translated and directed by Ron Jenkins.

Creative

Costume coordinators, Jeanette Hawley, Karen Eister; lighting, John Ambrosone; sound, David Remedios. American Repertory Theater artistic director, Robert Brustein. Opened, reviewed Sept. 9, 2001. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Johan Padan - Thomas Derrah
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