Italy's rubber-faced mime Dario Fo unhinges audiences with comedy

THE plays of Dario Fo have been performed in 37 countries, from church basements to Broadway. Millions of people have seen Mr. Fo in his mime masterpiece, ``Mistero Buffo (Comic Mystery),'' as he creates a galaxy of characters with body movement and a voice that can roar, growl, caress, or soar like a jazz saxophone.

In Milan, just about every Italian knows Dario Fo. ``Dario - he speaks to my heart,'' says a taxi driver, adding, ``and his wife, molto brava.'' Fo's wife and theatrical collaborator of 40 years is Franca Rame, also a celebrated actor, writer, and director.

Fo and Ms. Rame live in the Porta Roma neighborhood of Milan. He is a big gentle man with a broad pale face framed by white wavy hair. He wears a cream-colored cotton shirt and baggy ivory linen trousers with wide suspenders.

Fo's sunny watercolors warm the white walls of the expansive apartment. His paintings are the shorthand of his imagination: He paints to sketch story ideas, develop scenes, and design stage sets. Masks from Africa, Europe, and Asia adorn a doorway.

``Il teatro e mia casa, mia corpa, mio piatto [Theater is my home, my body, my meal],'' he says of his life onstage. ``I am a painter, director, storyteller, writer, scene designer. During the Renaissance, people in the theater did all these things. Ariosto died when his theater in Ferrara burned down.''

Fo studied art and architecture, but he most enjoyed telling satirical yarns like those he heard from the traveling actors who visited his hometown near Lake Maggiore. By the time he was 20, Fo's school was the stage.

``We worked closely together with the capocomiche (chief comics),'' he says.

He studied under Jacques Lecoq, the foremost mime of the day, who did not practice the silent style of a Marcel Marceau. Instead, he used his entire singing and dancing body to tell stories, and he trained Fo to use his musical voice, rubbery face, long limbs, and large body as assets.

``I use satire to communicate a moral,'' he says. ``I break down the wall by creating a strong image, an incident, or an accident.'' He gleefully describes how an audience panicked as a fog-making device sent smoke into the theater. ``They thought it was a fire,'' he says. ``After that night, we made it part of the act.''

Using farce to rout hypocrisy, Fo is heir to comic techniques practiced in the Middle Ages and the rough-and-ready days of Commedia dell'arte.

But his most enduring masterpiece is ``Mistero Buffo,'' a loosely woven tapestry of tales spun from folklore, Gospel stories, and daily news. Fo performs ``Mistero Buffo'' dressed in a dark turtleneck and trousers, with no prop but a microphone. He continually updates the piece.

He draws segments of ``Mistero Buffo'' from the medieval mystery plays of roving buskers who performed throughout Europe. Their raucous versions of Gospel stories exuberantly mixed the sacred and profane.

Fo is directing ``L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers),'' which opens the 1994 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, the Adriatic birthplace of the composer. The farce of a clever Italian woman's escape from her despotic captor could have been a Commedia dell'arte road show. ``Most productions of Rossini reduce his operas to bel canto [songs that allow for brilliant vocal display],'' Fo says. ``I am returning to Rossini's original, an opera buffo [comic opera] that is full of gags.''

He is also adapting the standup satires of Il Ruzzante (``The Chatterbox''), an actor. Il Ruzzante performed in the early 1500s, before Commedia dell'arte became drawing-room entertainment. He delivered comic monologues in the regional Paduan dialect on such topics as hunger and poverty. ``Il Ruzzante was a source for Shakespeare,'' Fo says.

Fo performed Il Ruzzante's monologues at the 1993 Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, and is now televising them in a six-program series.

He opens a book to display a painted scene of masted ships sailing into the 14th-century maritime capital of Genoa. ``People's needs are the same today,'' Fo says. ``People are hungry for food. Peace. Liberty. Justice. Happiness.''

* To learn about future productions of Dario Fo and Franca Rame, contact their administrative office in Milan, phone: 39-2-783-204.

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