Dance Of Death

By Cary M. Mazer

Sacco and Vanzetti:A Vaudeville

People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, extended through Feb. 21, 610-644-3500
Fish vendor Bartolomeo Vanzetti (Stephen Novelli) and shoemaker Nicola Sacco (Tom Teti), the anarchist Italian immigrants wrongfully convicted of robbery and murder, stand in their death-row cells in 1927. It's a few hours before their 17-step walk to the electric chair, and they're contemplating what their deaths mean in a world without justice. Vanzetti speaks about how they will be remembered in the never-ending leftist struggle. Sacco shrugs his shoulders and instead concludes "la commedia e finita": The drama is over.

"Commedia" means, in Italian, both "drama" and "comedy." It is the singular inspiration of playwright Louis Lippa, in his new play Sacco and Vanzetti: A Vaudeville, to conceive of the political drama of Sacco and Vanzetti as a comedy and, more ingenious still, to conceive of Sacco and Vanzetti themselves conceiving of their own execution as a comedy.

The bars of their prison slide away, the back wall of the set (by William McNeil Marshall) becomes a theatrical poster for the two-person comedy team of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the auditorium becomes a vaudeville theater in which Sacco and Vanzetti re-enact their arrest and trial through songs, dance and comedy sketches. They fetch costumes and props from the wings, putting on, taking off and switching jackets (sometimes, in a classic piece of vaudeville schtick, doing all three at the same time) to play the prosecutor, witnesses and judge at their trial.

To dramatize how a crucial piece of evidence was falsified - the bullet found in one of the victims was replaced by a bullet shot from the gun found on Vanzetti when he was arrested - they do a magic act. The testimony of one witness becomes a drag act. The appeal (before the same judge who tried the original case) becomes a "here comes the judge" routine.

Through all this, we learn everything we need to know about the case: about manufacturing evidence, suborning witnesses and the ways the prosecution and judge manipulated the patriotic, anti-immigrant, anti-Italian and anti-communist sentiments of the jury and the public to get their conviction.

Did we need the vaudeville routines to learn this story? Probably not; and they make some of the details - for example, Vanzetti's wrongful conviction for another robbery the year before, and its relation to the murder trial - a little confusing. But these vaudeville routines do serve to dramatize the bitter comedy of justice corrupted by prejudice and political expedience.

On a deeper level, the vaudeville format also dramatizes the cosmic farce of Sacco and Vanzetti's meaningless, wasteful deaths, and the pathos of having to wait out the final minutes of a life over which one has lost all control. The state may have chosen to execute them, but, as Sacco observes, "my death belongs to me."

Teti and Novelli are exuberant, energetic and, in the schticks that they execute, skilled vaudevillians. (Director Ken Marini brought in an octogenarian veteran British music hall comic, Johnny Hutch, to coach their routines.) And through all the pratfalls and comedy routines, they convincingly stay Sacco and Vanzetti, retaining their immigrant Italian accents (Novelli more so, perhaps, than Teti) and world views, even when impersonating Boston Brahmins and Mayflower WASPs. But the greatest strength of the performances is the deeply felt drama of their deaths and the depth of the unwavering political commitment for which they were martyred.

Still, even though the story is efficiently told and the performances are strong, the question remains of how much Lippa's play adds to what is already known about Sacco and Vanzetti. On the one hand, Hutch's routines and the actors' performances are so entertaining that you'll want even more of them, and want the whole hour and 40 minutes to be densely packed with nothing but schtick.

But on the other hand, nothing that Lippa actually writes is as eloquent as the words he draws from the trial transcripts and documentary evidence: the letters that Vanzetti writes from prison, the statements they each make at their deaths or the speech Vanzetti makes to the judge before his sentencing.

The play, finally, has nothing more to say about the case or about the men. There is nothing that the play or the production can - or, perhaps, needs to - add to the eloquence of the real-life Sacco and Vanzetti.