Critique of western imperialism lost amid crude gags

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 February, 2005, 12:00am

Mario Pirovano

Johan Padan and the Discovery of America

Studio Theatre, Cultural Centre

Ends tonight

Comedian Mario Pirovano surely takes the pre-show talk to its extreme by warning his audience about inevitable mishaps in his two-hour monologue.

Some of Dario Fo's wordplay in Italian would not translate well, he explains, and his own erratic English would possibly undermine the performance.

'But', he concludes, 'what is important is the story.'

Pirovano's proclamation is right on all accounts: yes, his bumbling delivery - which at its worst sees him flunking lines he has performed for six years - distracts, and, yes, what makes or breaks Johan Padan and the Discovery of America lies within the narrative.

Johan Padan is an Italian sailor who accidentally joins one of the first ships of the Columbus expedition sailing to the Americas.

Fo's intention was to lampoon western imperialism with a tale of Caribs triumphing over Conquistadors under the tutelage of Padan, who became a deity of the native cannibals in America by predicting bad weather and operating on their wounded with his sewing needle.

It doesn't take a historian to see that while crude colonial ambitions are gallantly censured, the natives are emancipated through the intervention of Padan, referred to as the 'Son of the Rising Sun' who worked so-called miracles.

Far from having 'switched sides to the vanquished', as Fo wrote in the programme notes, Padan actually represents the benign face of colonialism. By making Padan an endearing village idiot, the stereotypes remain unchallenged.

While credit must go to Pirovano for a very physical effort - without sets and music he filled two hours with body gestures and voice changes - the script is lumbered with coarse gags.

The criticism of colonial brutality and the hypocritical nature of western civilisation is lost amid Padan's excessive mentions of the posterior and his obsession with nakedness.

Padan's joke about how the Incas got their name from the Italian word for 'piss off' makes one quiver with disbelief: could this be the work of the same militantly left-wing Nobel laureate who penned Accidental Death of An Anarchist, a powerful critique on the repressive tendencies of conservative capitalist governments?

Rumour has it that the Johan Padan crew once dubbed Accidental Death as 'Incidental Death of Analysis'. It's not hard to see why.