U-M theatre and drama department prepares to sound 'Trumpets and Raspberries'
Photo by Peter Smith Photography
Malcolm Tulip is “all for blowing raspberries”—which is part of the reason that the University of Michigan theater professor was drawn to Italian political activist and theater artist Dario Fo’s comedy “Trumpets and Raspberries,” now being staged by U-M’s department of theatre and drama.
“What (Fo) did was—he was dissatisfied with the amount of control that theater owners had over content, so he and his wife took shows to new venues like prisons, or local recreation buildings, or housing estates,” said Tulip, who’s directing U-M’s production. “It was theater for people who wouldn’t normally go to theater, at an affordable price. So it was lowbrow, yet high in possibilities for discussion.”
“Trumpets” tells the story of a union worker named Antonio who, while rescuing a man from a burning car, finds himself under gunfire from the man’s would-be kidnappers. While escaping, Antonio accidentally leaves his coat behind on the disfigured victim, who turns out to be the wealthy Fiat industrialist Giovanni Agnelli, Antonio’s boss. When the unconscious Agnelli ends up at the hospital, everyone assumes he’s Antonio—and the plastic surgeons mistakenly reconstruct Agnelli’s face to look like Antonio’s. Mix in Antonio’s emotional, estranged wife; his loving mistress; secret agents; and inept detectives, and the result is a lively farce.
And while Fo is one of the most-produced living playwrights in the world, online searches for reviews of “Trumpets”—which premiered in the early ‘80s—reveal that the play has mainly been produced in Britain and Australia.Tulip believes that there are two reasons for this. “Physical theater and political theater have been embraced more fully in those places, and I don’t think many venues are willing to do work like this,” said Tulip. “It smells of socialism.”
Actually, though, Fo is a communist, according to Tulip, who combines political messages and philosophies with comedy inspired by the classic, centuries-old commedia dell’arte style.
“It speaks to people without beating them over head,” said Tulip. “We’re having a lot of fun with it. It’s a bit like a circus. I’ve got a student who studies philosophy and Italian culture and language—he’s doing some dramaturgical work for us - and he said it’s like a carnival, or a day of fools, where everything is inverted, and people at the top are brought low."
Fo spoke at Ecole Jacques Lecoq when Tulip was a student there in the 1970s, so he’s been a longtime fan of Fo’s work.
“Trumpets” was inspired by the kidnapping of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978. When the militant communist group responsible demanded the release of several prisoners as ransom, they were turned down and consequently executed Moro.
This hardly sounds like the stuff of comedy, of course. But Fo lets his wealthy kidnapping victim survive—albeit with the face and life of a blue collar worker. Tulip sees this as a timely story to tell, in these days of the Wall Street occupation.
“It’s about questioning the amount of power those with the most money have over the rest of us,” said Tulip, who said this idea also explains the play’s title. Trumpets signify the fanfare associated with “the people at the top of the food chain,” while raspberries don’t refer to the fruit, but rather a stick-out-your-tongue Bronx cheer, courtesy of the working class.
"People can expect ('Trumpets' to be) a mixture of circus, vaudeville, and the Marx Brothers," said Tulip. "It should be a lot of fun."