Open Fist Theatre Company’s West Coast Premiere of Dario Fo’s The Devil With Boobs is the kind of show that most people will either love or hate. I ended up pretty much in the middle. While I absolutely loved the performances, and found the show gorgeous to look at, I must confess to not having “gotten” Fo’s mishmash of styles, his nonstop use of vulgarity, and what seems often to be the antithesis of sophistication.

But first, a word about the divine Katherine Griffith, who gives one of the wildest and most comically stunning performances you’re likely to see this year. Veteran character actress/playwright/solo performer Griffith is Pizzocca Ganassa, housekeeper to 16th Century Italian judge Alfonso de Tristano (Michael Winters, also excellent). The Devil (Phillip William Brock) decides to ruin the chaste judge by turning him into a lecherous sex maniac.  How?  By having his apprentice (Herschel Sparber, virtually recreating his signature role of Big Julie in Guys And Dolls) enter His Honor through the rectum. By accident, the apprentice enters Pizzocca’s asshole (aka “the sweetest orifice”) just “like a Satanic suppository”—and the sex maniac ends up being none other than the until now virtuous housekeeper.  From her first entrance, the imposing Griffith has made quite an impression, announcing proudly that she is the show’s most important character, defending “Judge Broody” by insisting that indeed “I have seen him laugh … once,” and boasting that “my judge won’t let anyone stop him” and that he is “as sharp as a hawk.” As Pizzocca, Griffith is already a force to be reckoned with, but when she finds herself possessed by the assistant and begins “tawking” in an uncanny impersonation of Sparber’s gravely “Noo Yawkah” bass of a voice, her performance rises to another level.  It goes higher still when (still under the assistant’s possession) she (he?) assumes the sensuously feminine voice and manner of a bosomy seductress and moves in on Judge Alfonso with love and lust on the mind.  Griffith is brilliant!

Brock and Sparber do fine comic work as well, making their first entrance from the third and fourth rows of the theater, where they’ve been sitting unbeknownst to the audience. Later, Brock proves himself a showman extraordinaire by singing the devilish “Down With Clothes” (a tango all about nudity) and baring his buns to illustrate that “it is no sin to strip to the skin.”  And speaking of bared body parts, Pilar Alvarez appears as Jacoba, a local citizen who has apparently made quite an impression on the townspeople by running through the streets with flames “shooting out of her ass” and who lowers her bodice to reveal her ample breasts when on trial before Judge Alfonso. (Griffith also bares Pizzocca’s though these are fakes, inflated to the size of soccer balls by a helpful castmate.) 

As the Judge, Winters gets to play just about every emotion in the book. He is especially funny in his scenes opposite Griffith, who keeps moving from persona to persona to the judge’s consternation and confusion.  Just before the final curtain, Winters delivers a passionate speech directed against the Bushes and the Prop 8 h8ters and their ilk (without mentioning them by name) which comes from out of the blue and seems from another play entirely.  While I appreciated the sentiment and the acting, I couldn’t help wondering, “Whaaaaat?”

Weston Blakesley is wonderful as always in the role of a self-important Cardinal (aren’t they all?) who ends up getting played tricks on by the Devil and later makes the horrifying discovery of the Judge and Pizzocca in bed together in a naked embrace.   

Sharing credit for the above-mentioned performances and for taking The Devil With Boobs on its manic journey is director Tom Quaintance, who keeps the action fast and frenetic.  Completing the all-around terrific cast are Charles Otte as a musician and the Captain Of The Guard, Katie Hill and Michelle Lema as a couple of curvaceous serving girls, Alex Wright and Bill Ruehl as a pair of guards, Cecilia de Rico as a Townswoman, and William Jackson as thief Geron de la Noci and Father Mirone. Wright, Otte, and Ruehl also form the first-rate band which accompanies the performers and provides a background to the onstage hi jinx.

At the performance I attended, Colin Lane appeared as the Inquisitor, a role which gave him the chance to react (hilariously) to what appeared to be a blow job just out of view behind and beneath a window sill.  (Note: Lane’s appearance in the role was unannounced, and it was only because his headshot was posted below the rest of the cast’s in the lobby that I realized he was taking over the role from Phillip Rhys. A second headshot hung next to Lane’s without the actor’s name so perhaps another role was being covered by the unnamed actor. Hopefully, at future performances, Open Fist will announce which roles are being played by understudies, and as a sidenote, I do wish they’d include headshots in their programs, as the vast majority of theaters do.)

Back to the show:  There’s a particularly funny scene which features the proven laugh-getting device of an invisible character (in this case the Devil) playing tricks on an unsuspecting mortal (in this case the Cardinal), this time involving a bottle of urine which keeps appearing and disappearing on a shelf—to the Cardinal’s consternation.  There’s also some very clever use of puppets, shadow and otherwise. 

What I don’t “get” with Fo, or at least with this production, which was my introduction to him, is his often vulgar, scatological (and corny) blend of slapstick and politics and sex.  The Devil With Boobs features an abundance of farts, naked tits (real and fake), vomit, and horse turds, as well as lines like “I dreamed I had these boobies,” also referred to as “tantalizing titties” and “bazooms.” Perhaps I would have had to hear them in the original Italian to understand Nobel Prize-winning Fo’s reputed genius. (The translation is by Jon Laskin.) In the end, it seemed to me that all that was missing from The Devil With Boobs was the kitchen sink.

If I had problems understanding the why and wherefore of Fo’s comic satire, I had none whatsoever in appreciating the production’s superb design, from the rich, warm colors of Adam Rowe’s set, which suggests a Renaissance Italian street scene, beautifully complemented by Otte’s lighting, to Christina Wright’s absolutely gorgeous period costumes (including a deliberately anachronistic red jogging suit worn by the Devil’s assistant). Wright also designed the oh-so-clever puppets (I’m assuming she designed both the hand-held puppets as well as the life-sized ones serving as courtroom spectators.)  Alex Wright, besides playing the first guard, does extra triple duty as composer, music director, and sound designer and gets a big thumbs up for all, especially for the Italianesque melodies which accompany the songs. Diana Wyenn gets top marks for her choreography.  (She also assistant directed.)

Ultimately, there is much to recommend in The Devil With Boobs, though I still can’t help wondering why turd and fart jokes, which from a college fraternity would be considered sophomoric, are genius when written by Fo. Anyway, I loved Katherine Griffith to bits, and ended up laughing quite a bit, so all in all, I give The Devil With Boobs one boob, sorry, one thumb up.

Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
April 17, 2009
                                           Photo: Maia Rosenfeld

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