Gary Norman

DARIO FO is one of the most controversial playwrights in modern history. He's been banned from Italian television and from entering the US, denounced by the Vatican, and awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Since I'm a responsible reviewer, I read up on Fo before attending opening night of The Dissenter's Handbook at Shaking the Tree, and was curious to see what kind of subversive political messages would be acted out on stage. With a name like The Dissenter's Handbook and little revealed, I felt certain I was in for some challenging material. The plays that director Samantha Van Der Merwe has chosen are perhaps unrepresentative of Fo's reputation for controversy, but nonetheless, they provide an almost painfully pleasant two hours.

As the sole performer, Matthew Kerrigan uses his considerable talent to make what could have been an agonizingly slow show (three monologues, two hours, one actor alone onstage) fly by. With no props other than a few wooden stools, and no set other than a Rothko-esque purple-and-orange backdrop, Kerrigan reels through voices and roles (soldier, tiger, cub, Mary, God, Devil, Eve, Adam) so quickly and skillfully that you forget he's the only one on stage. Consistent with Fo's style and the Italian traditions that his work tries to honor, the plays rely heavily on physical humor—and Kerrigan provides it so perfectly that it's impossible to explain why the plays are so funny without having him in front of you.

In Tale of a Tiger (La Storia Della Tigre), Kerrigan delivers the monologue of a soldier in the mountains of China who is left behind by his army when he develops gangrene and is (literally) nursed back to health by a tigress. Near the end of the monologue, the soldier escapes the tiger's cave and arrives in a village where he is asked to tell his story; he wordlessly cycles through a series of gestures that reiterates the entire tale, to loud laughter from the audience. In The Shepherd's Cantata, a dimwitted and well-intentioned Virgin Mother must make her way from Naples to Palestine in time to give birth, aided only by two would-be scammers posing as boatmen. And in Two Peas in a Pod, the creation myth, the discovery of sex, and the origins of modern gender roles are laid bare in a tell-all by Eve.

It's easy to imagine the latter two plays being received as blasphemy in Catholic Italy, although poking fun at the Bible and blurring the line between the sacred and the profane doesn't feel very dangerous in Portland. I found myself wishing for more curatorial information in the program—a bio of Dario Fo? Some context to make sense of the performances? The titles of the second two plays? But even without it, The Dissenter's Handbook stands alone as a masterful staging, a hilarious evening, and a seriously good time.