Sublime, funny and irreverent – thus sums up the fantastical journey of Johan Padan to the New World. Leftist playwright Dario Fo brings his incisive political slant to this little gem of a play which informs us that the discovery of the Americas is well…not quite what we think.
The play is, in fact, an 'epic monologue with a cast of thousands' all performed by one man. Actor, Steve Gome is that man.
Director Wayne Pearn (Artistic Director of Hoy Polloy) and Gome have wanted to work with each other for sometime so – some would say – the planets aligned!
Says Gome of Padan: "He has such an energetic, passionate and cheeky spirit. Johan Padan is a delight. For me, it’s not so much a question of finding the character as keeping up with him.”
Pearn has always been a big fan of Dario Fo and his wife Franca Rame – so much so that he studied them and their work at Uni thus planting the seed of serendipity all those years ago.
"It was at La Trobe that a group of us formed a theatre company, Frontline, and we staged a ripping production of Accidental Death of an Anarchist in a derelict church (no pun intended)," says Pearn. " Fast forward almost 30 years and the opportunity arose to do JP with Steve Gome."
The work is inspired by historical figures including Cabeza de Vaca and Guerriero, and was written by Fo in 1992 as an alternative to the official commemorations of Columbus’ voyage of 1492.
"At the heart of this re-imagined historical piece is simply anti colonialism, how impressing one culture upon another is not necessarily a positive step in a world view and ultimately how belief prevails, Pearn explains. " Let’s face it it’s a familiar scenario writ large in our past, present and no doubt in our future."
The work is a deceptive little piece – not quite as simple as it may appear on the surface. Fo is a political campaigner with a wicked sense of humour and a cerebral approach to satire. Pearn agrees describing the piece as a typical Fo – subversive.
"His genius lies in his innate ability to blend the political with the comic. I reckon he is a political activist full stop! JP is Fo’s response to the quincentennial celebrations in 1992 of Christopher Columbus’ voyage of the America’s. It is a fantastical counter to the applied history of Columbus’ journey. So who is he lampooning? Why the self-proclaimed ‘superior’ cultures that’s who.
This is Padan's second coming for Pearn and Gome – the first was 2013 at the Trades Hall. Pearn tells me that he and the other creatives were always going to give the play another outing stipulating they just had to identify what was best for the production.
"Philippa Jelbart from 45 saw it first time around and liked it so that was a positive when we had a chat to 45 about the possibility of a season there, explains Pearn. " We were, as were others, convinced that 45 was the perfect space for the play particularly with the type of staging we have in mind. It just works on a number of levels. Steve and I have also worked there before and love the space and have a terrific relationship with the 45 team. It is a fab place to work and they have lofty standards to live up to which keeps you on your toes!"
Pearn and Gome have created quite a visual treat suggesting the artistic bond between actor and director a tremendously collaborative one. That is as it should be for Pearn.
"We’ve diligently toiled away at the play honing and delineating all the transitions and it has been a real joy mining this wonderful text. Between Christmas and New Year we actually rehearsed outdoors in an inner city park to get a feel for the elements. It gave us some valuable insights and It certainly kept those that wandered by entertained."
"All plays present challenges in one way or another, however, we’ve had a lot of fun bringing this to life. Obviously it helps when you have a terrific script and a gun actor who works his butt off. We have just taken the piece one step at a time and when we feel ready to move onto the section we do. Patience plus discipline always wins the day."
Johan Padan is a fugitive from the Inquisition who performs fantastical feats of surgery, prophecy and love after travelling with Columbus to the New World. The play is a fantastical adventure told by a loveable rogue.
Says Pearn: "Come and see an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary play by an extraordinary playwright. Startlingly funny, provocative, political and oh so relevant right now. It’s a rare opportunity to see a Dario Fo play. In fact this is the first Dario Fo at fortyfivedownstairs."
In a world where riding your luck might be the death of you, riding a pig could save your life.
February 4 – 15
Photo: Tim Williamson