Italian actor Dario Fo has begun a performance tour along the East Coast, with the affectionate support and collaborative talents of his actress wife, Franca Rame, thus ending a period of relative inhospitalitycq on the part of the American government. In 1980 the United States refused to let the controversial couple visit, relying on an ``ideological exclusion'' provision of the McCarran-Walter Act. At the time, they were said to be openly sympathetic with a pro-terrorist organization in Italy. Later, in 1984, the barriers were let down to allow them to enter the US in connection with the performance of one of Mr. Fo's plays in New York.
Now there appears to be no problem as the couple begins a series of interviews and performances in Cambridge (through May 11), New Haven, Conn. (May 13-17), New York (May 27-June 7), Washington (June 9-14), and Baltimore (June 18-20).
An enthusiastic welcome was awaiting Mr. Fo and Ms. Rame at their first public appearance, which took place at the Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts. At a press conference supplemented with amiable questions from students from nearby colleges, the couple received a silver Paul Revere bowl from the society, a handsome plaque from Emerson College, and warm applause all around.
Fo and Rame spoke in Italian of their theatrical origins, aims, and achievements, which were restated in English with the aid of two interpreters.
Fo said he was originally a painter, and later studied architecture in Milan, but his career as an actor and playwright now covers 34 years. Gesturing toward his wife, he credited her with having been ``born on the stage.'' He deferentially called her the manager: ``If there are problems, don't come to me -- go to her!'' Warming to his subject, he added, ``Franca is the theater to me!''
He said his plays begin with acting out ideas. ``I write afterwards -- sometimes two or three years later.'' On the current tour, Fo is performing his one-man show ``Mistero Buffo'' (Comic Mystery), and Rame her onewoman show ``Tutta Casa, Letto e Chiesa'' (It's All Bed, Board, and Church), a monologue of feminist protest.
Fo told of his boyhood in southern Italy, when he picked up stories heard from fishermen. ``The way they got kids to help with the nets was to tell them stories. I learned a lot of them.'' Later, he became a storyteller himself, enthralling (and confusing) teachers and students with made-up tales about the misadventures of well-known people, and ``in the tradition of the theater, I then invented famous persons that didn't even exist.''
He and his wife headed one of only two or three groups ``making a lot of money'' in conventional theaters when, in 1968, they decided to offer political satire in halls that had never been used before as theaters. Buildings used by workers and farmers for dancing on weekends were turned into theaters, and plays were put on that dealt with the lives and concerns of ordinary people.
Fo's farcical play, ``Accidental Death of an Anarchist,'' was based on an actual incident involving an apparent police cover-up, about which people were very curious. With official accounts as the starting point, Fo let his imagination run, and provided a credible account of what really happened, though couched in farce. ``It was a tragic event, but we turned it into comedy, and this is what satire is,'' he said. ``It always starts with tragedy.''
His Cambridge listeners were delighted when Fo began unpacking a big bag filled with masks used in commedia dell'arte performances. Putting the open end of a stocking over the top of his head, he wrapped the stocking under his chin and tucked in the other end. He then put on one of the half-masks, designed to leave the mouth and chin free, and capped the disguise with a beret.
In this manner he displayed one mask after another, later demonstrating some of the imitation languages used in his plays. Using no known words, but only sounds and rhythms characteristic of Spanish, he spouted a paragraph or two of what sounded like a Spanish diatribe. Without skipping a beat, he moved into a French passage of some kind, and nobody had to be told it was French, though there was not a recognizable word in it.
Fo noted how languages are enriched through international contacts.
``In Italy,'' he remarked with a touch of sarcasm, ``we have had the good fortune to be invaded by almost all the other countries in the world -- including the Greeks and the Arabs. Only the Russians haven't come yet.''
Then, with rueful reference to the tragic nuclear accident at Chernobyl, ``Now, with the clouds, the Russians are coming, too.''