Social injustice is no laughing matter. But Italian satirist and playwright Dario Fo has made a career out of throwing his hands up and responding in comical derision. We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay! is a prime example, and the Wilbury Group is performing it, appropriately enough in Providence's Olneyville neighborhood, directed by Brien Lang.
Every window is broken in the upper floor of the commercial building across the narrow street from the performance. The play itself is set in a neighborhood so impoverished that although the two main couples work fulltime, their rent is always in arrears and they can hardly afford to eat. Hunger is a heartfelt theme for the playwright. I'll never forget being mesmerized by Fo as he performed his short The Hunger of the Zanni, his character helplessly devouring parts of himself.
We Won't Pay! hits the ground running — away from the police. We see Antonia (Claire Blackmer) in her apartment, lying to her friend and neighbor Marguerite (Kelly Seigh) about the bags of groceries she has come home with. Eventually she admits that there was a food riot nearby. It started after a supermarket manager, asked why prices were going up again so quickly, then smirked and said that he could charge whatever he wanted. One woman stood up to him and announced that she would pay wherever she wanted, and the cry of the title caught on with the housewives.
The main comical image in the play is that of women appearing to be pregnant while they're actually hiding stolen food under their clothing. That's funny enough when we see Antonia and Marguerite pretending for their husbands, but it's hilarious when we imagine streets full of such women confusing the police, who'd better not tap the wrong stomach if they know what's good for them.
This 90-minute performance, without an intermission, took a while to warm up the audience. But toward the end was a scene that could get a Buckingham Palace guard weeping with laughter. You really have to be there to appreciate it, but let me just say that it involves Blackmer impersonating an old man with a funny voice who believes a miracle is happening, resulting in both she and Seigh conducting an elaborate, drawn-out curse on a terrified policeman.
Let's not forget the husbands, without whose gullibility things would be much less funny. Antonia's Giovanni (Kevin Delaney) is an upright citizen who would be horrified to think that his wife would pay one penny less than a sticker price. He and his factory coworkers are worried about downsizing, but he was appalled that one man caused a ruckus in the cafeteria that day by refusing to pay for the slop they were served. (His wife's response to his account: "I'm standing here in shock and indignation!")
His coworker, Marguerite's husband Luigi (Dave Rabinow), is far less credulous, turning his nose up at the soup Giovanni is making. It's composed of birdseed and frozen rabbit heads, which his wife had grabbed up in outlaw haste. The two men eventually lower themselves to the criminal level of their wives when they take some bags of food that fell off a truck and hide them in the apartment.