Italian actors presenting modern concerns in medieval mode. Husband-and-wife team on tour in eastern US

Mistero Buffo (Comic Mystery) Written, directed by, and starring Dario Fo. The Italian husband-and-wife team of Dario Fo and Franca Rame are making their New York debuts as part of an East Coast tour which began in Cambridge, Mass., and will end in Baltimore. The local engagement at the Joyce Theater opened with ``Mistero Buffo (Comic Mystery),'' Mr. Fo's one-man tour de force -- part cultural history, part satirical commentary, and all Dario Fo.

A program note explains that giullarata popolare, as it is subtitled, ``is a spectacle written and performed in the style of jongleurs or giullari -- those itinerant entertainers of Europe during the late Middle Ages, who combined the arts of music, mime, acrobatics, and extemporaneous poetic recitations with a socially oriented form of dramatic caricature, satirizing the local clergy and nobility. Like its medieval counterpart, Fo's `comic mystery' is a synthesis of popular legend and contemporary chronicle, entertainmment, and didactic discourse.''

Linguistically, ``Mistero Buffo'' ranges from Italian (with instant translation by Ron Jenkins or with projected subtitles) to a Fo-invented gibberish which he calls grammelot (combining phonetic elements from different languages). Spectators may not get all the jokes, but the versatile actor-writer ensures that they miss none of the humor. In one of his more fantastic vocal flights, he re-invents Elizabethan drama in terms of contemporary histrionics. The uproarious aria may not settle whether Shakespeare really wrote his plays. But it leaves no doubt about who did the rewrites: Dario Fo.

Past and present juxtapose satirically in ``Mistero Buffo.'' Tracing the progress of Renaissance confrontations from dueling to litigation, he remarks: ``We don't have today the violence they had then.''

Topics covered in the Fo texts include justice, miracles, ecclesiastical corruption, and assorted social and political issues. The raising of Lazarus is retold as a medieval folk tale. The savage account of Pope Boniface VIII is given (according to the program) ``as it might have been recited by a 14th-century giullare.'' Fo's monologue on the present pontiff is more playful but no less irreverent. (Small wonder that when ``Mistero Buffo'' was aired on Italian TV in 1977, the Vatican reportedly termed it ``the most blasphemous show in the history of television.'' The Communist Party ``expressed equal outrage.'')

A rangy, well-built gadfly, Fo suits his actions to his words. Dressed in dark slacks and matching sweater, he relies equally on vocal virtuosity and agile miming. Whether as an ill-tempered Boniface getting into his vestments or as a peasant elbowing his way through a crowd to see a miracle, Fo creates the necesssary instant portraiture. Besides grammelot, Dario Fo adds to his native Italian a body language that is eloquent and universal. Tutta Casa, Letto e Chiesa (It's All Bed, Board and Church) Monologues by Franca Rame and Dario Fo. Directed by Mr. Fo. Starring Miss Rame.

The second of the two solo performances at the Joyce stars Miss Rame in a series of monologues, each of which (again to quote the program) ``treats the sexual slavery of women from a different point of view, moving from grotesque tone into tragedy. All the main issues of the women's movement in Italy in the early 1970s are touched, including abortion, sexual violence and harassment, domestic violence, and the exploitation of women's jobs and bodies.'' (Some of the material was performed by Estelle Parsons in an English version at the Public Theater in 1983.)

For the most part, however serious the intent, the tone of the sketches is comic. In the farcical ``The Awakening,'' a working mother with a factory job rushes through her morning chores and searches frantically for a mislaid door key.

``A Woman Alone'' takes a funny-sad look at the empty life of a bourgeois matron who ``has it all.'' ``We All Have the Same Story'' is a surrealistically bizarre fantasy with a somewhat murky moral. ``Medea'' applies a contemporary feminist twist to a Greek legend. ``A Rape,'' a stream-of-consciousness recitation and the shortest of the monologues, proves the most shattering.

As a comedienne, Miss Rame favors the broad effect, an approach well suited to the colorful and frequently explicit nature of the writing. The handsome actress changes costumes between scenes but retains a basic, volatile stage persona. The prologues, instantly interpreted by Maria Consagra, have a tendency to go on too long. Stuart Hood and Mr. Jenkins prepared the projected English translations. Lino Avolio designed the minimal settings and lighted the production.

Fo and Rame will alternate performances at the Joyce through June 7. They will play Washington's Kennedy Center (June 9-14). As part of the Theatre of Nations Festival in Baltimore, Mr. Fo will appear at Peabody Concert Hall and Miss Rame at the Baltimore Museum of Arts (June 18-20).

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