As a college student in the early '80s, Anne Cantler Fulwiler saw a couple of Dario Fo plays in London.
"I fell in love with the humor and the political intent," Fulwiler said.
Now, as Theatre Project's producing director, Fulwiler will welcome the first Fo play to be performed at the avant-garde venue.
Starting this weekend, Theatre Project hosts Ramesh Meyyappan's dialogueless adaptation of Fo's play Mistero Buffo. The performance is part of the annual QuestFest, a two-week celebration of visual theater. QuestFest, which begins Monday and runs through Jan. 27, features performances, panels and workshops meant to raise awareness of visual theater.
Meyyappan's adaptation of Mistero Buffo focuses on multiple characters: a drunkard who believes that if there is a God, he would have wanted people to enjoy life, a pope who lusts for power and Christ himself, who appears not as a Biblical figure but as a positive symbol. Fo, an Italian playwright who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997, was known for injecting humor, theology and politics into his plays.
Fo's "work is very based in text," Fulwiler said. "But the message in his work tends to be very universal - oppression of the working class, excesses in the upper classes, those continual society struggles through history. That universality I'm intrigued to see expressed visually."
Meyyappan's rendition of the play has background music but no dialogue. Instead, Meyyappan, a Singapore-based performer, must rely on his physical abilities to portray characters and propel the play.
Meyyappan's ability to take risks as an actor is what helped persuade Tim McCarty to bring him back this year. McCarty is the founder and president of Quest, the company behind the festival.
"He's a brilliant artist," McCarty said. "What I really like about him as an actor is his total willingness to immerse himself in a character. He morphs seamlessly from one character to another."
Last year, Theatre Project played host to Lost and Clowned, an original work McCarty conceived and directed. It ran for one weekend and generated a positive response from fans and theater production crew, Fulwiler said.
But Fulwiler is especially looking forward to presenting Mistero Buffo because it will be at the theater for two weeks instead of one. That gives it time to build some buzz - which can be crucial for a Theatre Project play, she said.
"Word of mouth is what really drives the audiences who come to a place like the Theatre Project," Fulwiler said.
Unlike other visual theatrical performances, QuestFest is meant for both hearing and deaf audiences. As such, there is no need for sign language or an interpreter.
"The whole idea is that no interpreter needs to distract us from the basic message on stage and that everyone can understand what is on stage," Fulwiler said.
After the Jan. 17 and 27 performances, Meyyappan will participate in a 20-minute discussion with audience members called a "Talk Back." This kind of interaction has long been a part of Theatre Project's mission, Fulwiler said. It's part of what makes QuestFest a great fit at the venue.
"In a place like Theatre Project, the audience's feedback is a huge part of the equation," Fulwiler said. "Our artists are always creating new work, and they want to know want our audiences think about it."
Ramesh Meyyappan's visual adaptation of Dario Fo's "Mistero Buffo" will be at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Showtimes are 10 a.m. Jan. 17, 8 p.m. Jan. 18 and 19, 3 p.m. Jan. 20, 8 p.m. Jan. 24-26 and 3 p.m. Jan. 27. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors and artists, and $10 for students. Call 410-539-3091 or go to theatreproject.org. QuestFest starts Monday and runs through Jan. 27 at venues including Towson University, Creative Alliance at the Patterson and Round House Theatre. Call 410-704-2787 or go to questfest.org.