None of the rest of the scenes have the joy, the humor, the irreverence or the sheer fun of these first five minutes.

Mistero Buffo

Yellowdog Theatre Ensemble at Theater 200, UArts School of Theater Arts, 313 S. Broad St., second floor, through June 1, Wed.-Sun., 7:30 p.m. Info: 563-4330.

For Dario Fo, Italy's premier political playwright and virtuoso clown, the subversive political power of the medieval European religious pageant play lies in the subversive theatrical power of the clown. And so, through the years, Fo developed a one-man lecture-demonstration clown show entitled Mistero Buffo, featuring his own political versions of Passion stories, combining storytelling, monologues, dialogues and even crowd scenes, in which he would play all the parts.

In most of these stories, Christ's miracles, tribulations and agonies take place just off stage (or above the characters' head while He's on the cross), and we see the events through the eyes of the common people: workers, passersby, witnesses and random onlookers. There are moments of sly political commentary (the cripple and the blind man are none too happy about having been cured by Christ's miracles, since they'll now have to work for a living), moments of subversive theology (a drunken priest, who narrates the marriage at Cana, sermonizes about how wine is the creation not of the devil but of God), moments of cruelty (the soldiers hammer the nails into Christ's palms, each blow in the name of an authority figure shamed by Christ's revolutionary politics), moments of whimsy (a jester flirts with the Grim Reaper, who has come for Christ, eating his Last Supper in the next room), moments of blasphemy (the crazed mother of one of the slaughtered innocents, clutching a lamb which she wants to believe is her child, curses God the Father for asking too high a price for her to pay for the birth of Christ), and moments of high drama (Mary recognizes, in the image in Veronica's handkerchief, that her son is being crucified).

Yellowdog Theatre Ensemble has bravely turned Fo's one-man show into a 13-actor ensemble piece, adapted by the company and directed by actor Grant Moninger. And from the very first scene we can see that they are bringing their own contemporary, anarchic sense of humor to the material: a chorus line of self-mutilators, including tap-dancing self-flagellants, lounge-lizard crooners using the handles of their cat-o'-nine-tails as microphones, and a chorus of sufferers sawing off their own legs and banging their heads with bricks.

None of the rest of the scenes have the joy, the humor, the irreverence or the sheer fun of these first five minutes. For the ensemble members are, I sense, not political enough to play up the class issues, not religious enough to create a sense of the miraculous, and not skilled enough as clowns to embody the subversive, carnivalesque exuberance of the author and his theatrical forebears.

And so the performers -- clowns, priests, oppressors, martyrs, saints and saviors alike -- substitute noise in place of clowning, noise in place of polemic, noise in place of high drama, noise in place of awe and noise in place of transfiguration.

-- Cary M. Mazer