They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! from Ambassador Theater
March 7, 2016 by Daron Christopher

The mark of master storytellers is that they can make a given narrative hold resonance and power
beyond the narrow context of the original time and place. By this standard, much art will ultimately
fall short, stripped of its context and relevance as time marches on. The work that endures captures
truth, even when in a different language and time. Italian actor-playwright Dario Fo is considered
such a storyteller.

Beyond his considerable comedic instincts, this is due to his choice of material, often focused on
promoting the solidarity of a working class smothered by a heartless ruling elite. If unfortunate for
Fo’s idealism, the persistence of the struggle lends his work a timeless quality – particularly in the
case of They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!

Hanna Bondarewska as Antonia and Moriah Whiteman as Margherita in They Don’t Pay? We
Won’t Pay!from Ambassador Theater (Photo: Valentin Radev)

Originally set and premiered in Italy in the late 1970s, Fo’s creation is the story of ordinary people
in various stages of subversion against a “free market” stacked against them and teetering in the
throes of collapse. Fo has revised the story over the decades to maintain relevance, but the broad
contours of the conflict remain unchanged and familiar. Just in time to mark Fo’s 90th birthday, co-
directors Joe Martin and Danny Rovins’ latest rendition, presented by Ambassador Theater,
seamlessly adapts the action to Great Recession-era Newark: talk of foreclosures, grumbling over
bailed out banks, references to Ben Bernanke. (It is a sign of some progress that critical asides
about the Pope have been amended to “the previous Pope.”)

With wages depressed and the cost of living ever increasing, a group of women decide to take
direct action by helping themselves to “five finger discounts” at the grocery store. They include
Antonia (Hanna Bondarewska) and Margherita (Moriah Whiteman), whose capacity for direct
action greatly exceeds their husbands’, Giovanni (Darren Marquardt) and Luigi (Mitch Irzinski).
The men, ground into exhaustion by the low pay and tedium of their work, have a longer journey in
imagining how to even begin meaningful rebellion. Giovanni, in particular, would go without food
before considering picking up his wife’s brand of civil disobedience.

Peter Orvetti as Federal Agent, Hanna Bondarewska as Antonia, Darren Marquardt as Giovanni,
Mitch Irzinski as Luigi and Moriah Whiteman as Margherita in They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!
from Ambassador Theater (Photo: Valentin Radev).  Despite its soaring social vision, the
production is not nearly as sober as a Bernie Sanders keynote. Pay injects plenty of levity and even
slapstick as the women adopt an elaborate ruse presenting Margherita is pregnant to conceal their
grocery bounty when Giovanni unexpectedly returns to the apartment. Further shenanigans abound
as the women scramble to conceal their thievery from police who conduct a mass sweep in search
of the stolen goods.

Peter Orvetti plays a quartet of characters, distinguished mostly by modest costume changes. The
most memorable and interesting is a police officer who,  proud of his college pedigree during which
he may have thumbed through some Marx in the library, adopts a more nuanced view of which
thieves the police should be investing their energies pursuing.

The talented cast brings enormous energy and spirit, particularly to the roles of the women feeling
the rush to adopt direct action as a means of putting food on the table. A little of the slapstick goes
a long way, however, growing tiresome toward the middle of the second act. Indeed, one revision
that I would welcome is a tightening of the pace. With an intermission, I felt the 2 and a half hour
length was better suited to a story of epic scope – rather than one primarily confined to a tiny

The production design effectively captures the cramped frustration of the characters’ living space
and makes effective use of the one other setting: a mural on a curtain depicting a range of ordinary
laborers, circa 1930s. It’s the kind of image that evokes the art that dotted lobbies and corridors in
countless buildings during the heyday of the Works Progress Administration. Now many of these
images are fading by neglect and design alike. Witness the 2011 episode in which the Republican
governor of Maine took aim at a mural in a government building depicting the state’s labor history,
on the grounds it sent an anti-business message.  (It was the Department of Labor, no less.)

As the final moments of They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! allude, most of us who make our living
from wages should see ourselves in these images and stories, even as the clothing – or the language
-changes. We let them fade at our collective peril.

DC Metro Theatre Arts

Magic Time! ‘They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!’ at
Ambassador Theater
by John Stoltenberg on March 7, 2016

In politics, the expression “Marxist farce” could well be a slur hurled by some puerile and petulant
presidential hopeful (you never know these days). In theater, however, the term “Marxist farce” has
a reputable history and legitimate meaning as the name of a genre. It just doesn’t pop up much. In
the economics of commercial theater, Marxist farce is a rare bird, and it’s no longer much seen in
the U.S. indie theater scene either.

Peter Orvetti (Federal Agent), Hanna Bondarewska (Antonia), Darren Marquardt (Giovanni),
Mitch Irzinski (Luigi), and Moriah Whiteman (Margherita). Photo by Valentin Radev.
If you’re looking for one of these uncommon agit-tainments, you’d be hard pressed to find a more
interesting and important example than Dario Fo’s They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! It’s the
prolific Nobel Prize winner’s most produced play, written in 1974 and staged around the world
since. Thanks to Ambassador Theater you can catch this classic work of working-class
consciousness in a terrifically witty revival at Flashpoint.

In They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!, Fo borrows farcical techniques from the Commedia Dell’
Arte and boulevard theater of his native Italy as well as the Theatre of the Absurd. American
audiences unfamiliar with these European traditions might more likely recognize echoes of Abbott
and Costello, I Love Lucy, Martin and Lewis, and Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners. Indeed
Fo’s two hilariously scheming housewives Antonia (Hanna Bondarewska) and Margherita (Moriah
Whiteman) could be sisters to Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz, and their two bombastic/bumbling
husbands Giovanni (Darren Marquardt) and Luigi (Mitch Irzinski) could be doppelgangers for
Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton.

The zany plot kicks off when consumer prices suddenly skyrocket and Antonia joins with other
shoppers who are taking matters into their own hands by stealing food. Afraid her law-abiding
husband Giovanni will find out, Antonia conceals some of the stolen food under her friend
Margherita’s coat, with the result she looks  pregnant. The husbands’ bewilderment over this
sudden fecundity makes for running gags aplenty. Meanwhile the law shows up in multiple guises
(Peter Orvetti) intent on finding the incriminating food loot. The play is aimed squarely at a mass
middle-of-the-road audience, cleverly constructed to keep ’em laughing all the way through to the
very end, when Fo’s exhortation to build a mass movement of proletariat solidarity enters slyly if
not subtlely, like a beneficent deus ex marxism.

Ambassador Theater is presenting the DC area premiere of a wonderful new-and-now translation
by Jon Laskin and Michael Aquilante of Fo’s most recent rewrite (over the years he has continued
updating it to keep pace with the dispiriting financial times), and it’s a real kick to listen to this adroit
cast play it to the hilt. Zippily directed by Joe Martin and Danny Rovin, the production relocates the
play from Milan to Newark, and changes Italian corporation names to contemporary U.S.
behemoths like Citibank and Verizon. Also interpolated are some apt references to “the previous
Pope’s” edicts against contraception and recent police activity in Baltimore and Fergusson. The first
act is a hoot; the second act lags a bit. I sensed Fo overwrote a stretch. A labored subplot heist by
Giovanni and Luigi supplants the far more madcap momentum begun by Antonia and Margherita.
But that’s a script quibble.

The Ambassador Theater’s enjoyable production of They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! smartly
showcases a classic by one of world theater’s most influential political consciences.

BOESMAN AND LENA by Athol Fugard

DIYAR THEATRE, Bethlehem  
Dara Annadwa Arts Center and tour.

Ambassador Theatre at Flashpoint
Washington DC
For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the
freedom of others.                                                                              Nelson Mandela

People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.  For love comes more
naturally to the human heart than its opposite.                                             Nelson Mandela