Grabbing a Folk Tale
When Dario Fo won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1997, it was a bit of a shock in many quarters. The Italian writer considers himself a jester, and his plays are cheerfully but powerfully anarchic. He mocks authority, turns officialdom on its ear, unearths unpopular truths and speaks consistently for the powerless and the poor. He suffered censorship in Italy for years and was not allowed to enter the United States in the 1970s and '80s, under the provisions of the McLaren Act. Nonetheless, the Denver Center staged a fine production of his play The Accidental Death of an Anarchist in 1984. (Fo was finally allowed a six-day visit in 1986.)
The one-man play A Tale of a Tiger was inspired by a storyteller Fo heard in the Chinese countryside in 1975. This was at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, and I imagine the image of the tiger -- a symbol of grace, power and protection in China -- was used to praise the Chinese revolt. A soldier on Mao Tse Tung's Long March is wounded during an attack by Chiang Kai-shek's army. He is nursed back to health by a tigress. Fo's adaptation is quirky and humorous; the tiger and her cub remain awe-inspiring, but they are also delightfully human. The play's ending is a call to arms against oppression of every kind.
Fo has always allowed theater people to adapt his work to the political and social realities of their own countries. When Israeli actor-director Ami Dayan became interested in A Tale of a Tiger in 1994, he was concerned about its revolutionary ending: Israel's president, Yitzhak Rabin, was engaged in delicate peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and a call for an uprising against him would have been absurd. Accordingly, Dayan and his collaborator Miki Ben Cnaan, revised the play: The soldier, having received his life back from the tiger, faces the challenge of deciding what to do with the rest of that life. He returns to his village and sets up shop as a healer (using the tiger's saliva as a cure-all), suffers a surge of ego during which he fancies himself a guru, and eventually decides to take his healing story on the road -- like the peasant Fo originally heard in China. And, in some ways, like the iconoclastic playwright himself.
Dayan has always been grateful that he made the choice he did: In 1995, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish fanatic who thought all talk of peace was treacherous.
At the Nomad Theatre, Dayan presents both his version of A Tale of a Tiger and, after a ten-minute intermission and a brief discussion, Dario Fo's original ending -- updated with a couple of references to the Bush administration.
You don't need to know any of this to enjoy the production. It functions on a lot of levels, and Dayan is a highly accomplished performer. His movements are sometimes stylized, sometimes naturalistic. He creates an entire folkloric world on stage, becoming a weary, wounded soldier, a roaring tigress, a curious cub. Miki Ben Cnaan's set is inventive, functional and eye-pleasing; an archway becomes a mountain or a cave as needed; leather bags transform into tiger teats and then into white banners. Ran Bagno's music is evocative, too.
This works as a kids' show because of its humor and apparent simplicity, and for adults because they can sense deeper currents. There's warmth and humanity to this production. The tiger becomes a genuine character in her own right. When she insists that the soldier drink her milk, she's both nurturing him and helping herself. She becomes by turn a mother figure, a nagging wife, an aggrieved partner, a heroic fighter for justice. And she's funny. In short -- both as written by Fo and as acted by Dayan -- she's a masterful creation.
I would have expected to prefer Fo's original ending to Dayan's adaptation, because, generally, politics interests me more than self-discovery. But in fact, I found Fo's version somewhat unsatisfactory -- except as a matter of literary and historical interest. This might have been partly because Dayan is out of costume at that point, or because he's summarizing rather than acting the ending out fully. But then again, it may just be that either the words don't quite fit our current situation (despite the urgent need for drastic political change) or that it's a rather thin and didactic piece of writing.
What remains with me about this production is the concept of a human link with something alien, animal and ancient, and the riches that this link uncovers. And the image of the tiger: nurturing and strong, vulnerable and unconquerable, irascible yet overflowing with kindness.
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