It’s the season for fresh political comedy. The stuff is served in heaping doses in the Poets’ Theatre’s “Mistero Buffo” — sort of.
Some of these gags are a few hundred years old. But the artists behind this lovingly resurrected period piece are keen to convince you that it’s as relevant as a monologue by John Oliver. That point is made with varying degrees of convincingness. The show best succeeds when it aims for a timeless sort of poetry, and finds it.
This new translation from the Italian of Dario Fo’s celebrated and controversial play, which Fo and wife/collaborator Franca Rame toured internationally for 30 years, is crafted by Poets’ Theatre president/artistic director Bob Scanlan and Walter Valeri. (Valeri served for years as Fo’s company manager.) It features no props or sets to speak of, and three actors: Remo Airaldi, Debra Wise, and Benjamin Evett, who is the Poets’ Theatre’s producing artistic director. John Malinowski’s lighting cues are subtle, and the actors wear the same loose-fitting, dark clothing throughout. Scanlan directs.
“Mistero Buffo,” seen at the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University through Saturday, is a collection of vignettes depicting stories from the Gospel as told by the powerless. (Scanlan and Valeri picked four biblical scenes from among many adapted by the Nobel-winning Fo, plus a prologue.) As such, it’s full of righteous indignation at the powerful. Whether personified by a feudal landowner or a priest working at his behest, the powers that be here are always keeping the little guy down.
Evett, who like his castmates has offered a long list of memorable performances on Boston stages, is given some heavy lifting in an overlong introduction explaining the historical context of the giullari, itinerant street performers of the Middle Ages.
What we’re about to see is subversive and relevant, we’re told repeatedly. Neither the impression of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders nor the reference to Comedy Central — not necessarily the edgiest source of political satire in 2016 — do many favors to that cause. (Evett’s bawdy pantomime of “deflating” the self-important is very funny, though the origin story of a giullare is unfortunately one of those tales in which a woman suffers so the male hero can learn a life lesson; not all power dynamics here are up for examination.)
“Mistero Buffo” picks up serious momentum when it stops making the case for its newness and lets these fine actors tell some very old stories. Wise is never anything short of terrific, especially when voicing a crowd full of people gathered at the tomb of Lazarus for a promised resurrection. She morphs from a cemetery attendant opportunistically charging admission to a vendor of fried sardines to a seasoned fan of these miracle-shows, who just loved the tasty loaves and fishes served at the last one. Later, Wise makes the most of a dramatic showcase as Mary.
Airaldi finds the sweet spot between humor and pathos and plants his feet there firmly. He’s funny as a drunkard who’s pleased as punch at the miracle Jesus cooks up for a wedding gift, but fully transcendent as a blind man confronting the prospect of being healed. When “Mistero Buffo” turns finally toward the dramatic, he is heartbreaking as a Roman soldier confronted simultaneously by conscience and the desire to keep his job. He and Evett have a fine rapport, with Evett usually playing the heavy who is undermined by circumstance or comedic sabotage.
This production doesn’t quite channel the sense of risky irreverence that once provoked outraged response from the Vatican, but that’s all right. Sometimes old news is perfectly good news.
Play by Dario Fo. Translation by Bob Scanlan and Walter Valeri. Directed by Bob Scanlan. Presented by Poets’ Theatre in partnership with Suffolk University. At Modern Theatre at Suffolk University. Tickets $12-$40. 800-838-3006, www.poetstheatre.org
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.