By JASON HOROWITZ
ROME, Dec. 30 — Dario Fo's scathing satires on authority and establishment have carried the playwright to the heights of Italian letters, a pinnacle capped with a Nobel Prize. But in his new play he aims at his favorite target, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, from a considerably more modest stature.
From about two and a half feet tall, to be exact.
Mr. Fo recently spent more than half of a sold-out performance here of his play "The Two-Headed Anomaly" portraying Mr. Berlusconi as a sort of tyrannical dwarf.
"We're not that cruel towards him," said Mr. Fo, who acts in the play and is still limber at 77. "We're just saying he's a little bit of a dwarf, as if he were a puppet." To create the effect Mr. Fo stood in a trench behind the main stage, his arms hidden in short pinstripe pants and his hands stuffed into shiny shoes.
But if his tap-dancing across the stage like a liberated ventriloquist's dummy wasn't absurd enough, the show's premise supplied an even more surreal twist.
At the beginning of the loosely scripted, often improvised left-wing rant against the conservative prime minister, it is explained that Mr. Berlusconi has had emergency surgery in which a portion of the brain of Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin, has been grafted to his own. This occurs after Chechen terrorists gun down the two leaders as they prepare for bed by practicing karate in matching kimonos.
The spoof was inspired by the friendship between the leaders, who tend to wear matching outfits during summit meetings (furry hats in Russian dachas and linen pants in Sardinian villas). Mr. Berlusconi infuriated many European politicians last month at a news conference in Italy by defending Mr. Putin's actions against separatists in Chechnya.
Besides what Mr. Fo refers to on stage as the show's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" gag, complete with references to Mr. Berlusconi's new taste for vodka and K.G.B. flashbacks, the show highlights a very real concern in contemporary Italian cultural life.
Critics like Mr. Fo fear that Mr. Berlusconi's political power and vast cultural influence — he is a media baron and the country's richest person — create a conflict of interest that is a breeding ground for censorship. "It's a difficult time for satire," he said in his dressing room before the show. "Berlusconi has his hands in everything. Satire has to have tragedy at its base. Well Italy now is really tragic. We've never been so low."
Neither has Mr. Berlusconi, for that matter, and he is not at all pleased about his diminutive depiction in the play.
"There is an Italian comedian who performs from inside the trench," he said in an interview, "to create the impression of a `devilish dwarf.' "
"I don't think I'm a dwarf," he said. "The new generation eats better and does more sports than me, but I'm the average Italian."
Mr. Berlusconi also argued that the left "continually attacks the government and the prime minister in particular."
Mr. Fo countered that he and other satirists were the real victims. He said that members of Mr. Berlusconi's political party had tried to get a text of "The Two-Headed Anomaly," which was written and performed here with his wife and longtime collaborator, Franca Rame. "Before they knew it was even about Berlusconi," Mr. Fo said.
Mr. Fo said that he had refused to hand the script over to what he called a politically motivated board of directors at a Milan theater, although he said the play's production had not been impeded in any way.
But officials close to Mr. Berlusconi say that even the accusation that the prime minister meddled at all is ludicrous, and they point out that there is a good deal of satire about Mr. Berlusconi in Italy. The front pages of Italian newspapers routinely feature cartoons that lash out and make fun of the prime minister. Satirical news programs on Italian television regularly give him starring roles.
But critics charge that there are many outlets where satire does not surface. In recent weeks, the Italian president refused to sign into law a bill passed by Mr. Berlusconi's allies in Parliament that could have expanded the prime minister's media holdings in the future, while state television suspended programs by some satirists after Mr. Berlusconi's media company called the show political propaganda and threatened to sue.
"They didn't just censor them, they kicked them off," Mr. Fo said.
Mr. Berlusconi's family owns major publishing and film distribution companies, newspapers and three out of the country's seven national television channels. Three of the other channels are run by the government.
For all its grave accusations, "The Two-Headed Anomaly" is an almost vaudevillian romp. The show consists largely of short, fat and bald jokes about the prime minister and his councilors. It stages bawdy attacks not only on Mr. Berlusconi's politics but also on his personal life and his ethics.
But that is exactly what Mr. Fo's fans expect and want.
At one night's performance, in the theater's lobby vendors sold about 5,000 euros' worth (about $6,000) of Dario Fo paraphernalia, including his books, paintings and videotapes. "The Pope and the Witch," a satire on another preferred target of Mr. Fo's, sold briskly, but materials attacking Mr. Berlusconi were the best sellers.
At the beginning of the show, Ms. Rame told the audience that the couple had planned to rest and peacefully recover from illnesses together, but that new laws postponing Mr. Berlusconi's corruption trials and expanding his business interests had brought them back.
"We had no choice but to get back on stage," she said.
The packed house of 1,400 at that performance appeared thankful that they did. The three-hour show sold out during its one-week run in Rome and is hitting the road throughout Italy for about 50 more performances. But some in the audience questioned whether that was even necessary.
"At this point the reality has become satire," said Augusto Derrone, 59. "Italy is always more surreal, and there is no room for satire to do its job."