You say you want a revolution? Quantum Theatre's new adaptation of "Pantagleize" has one just for you.
Using Michel de Ghelderode's play of 1929 -- "the farce to make you sad," as he called it -- as a launching pad, writer Jay Ball and director Jed Harris have reshaped the work about a buffoon who accidentally sets off a revolution to create a contemporary farce to make you think.
The chain of events that led to the Quantum premiere began with retired University of Pittsburgh professor Buck Favorini, who wanted to do the original play when he was a student at Yale, Mr. Ball explained. He later offered the idea for consideration to Quantum leader Karla Boos.
"She said, 'This looks like a Jed kind of play,' and he thought, 'This looks like a Jed and Jay kind of play,' " said Mr. Ball, a theater historian who has taught at Pitt and Point Park and Carnegie Mellon universities, where Mr. Harris also is an instructor. The two have collaborated on other Quantum projects, including "The Task."
"Jed said his response to the original play was he connected with the cynicism and disappointment that he personally felt with his involvement with quote-unquote the '60s. I said, from a different generational place, I think the '60s did a lot of good things. Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring are in some ways a validation of what was revolutionary in the best American democratic sense. So the concept for the play is this generational clash between his cynicism and my idealism."
Mr. Ball has taken a detour from the original central character of Pantagleize, a big-hearted imbecile whose missteps lead to bloodshed.
The new protagonist takes his cues from Allen Ginsberg's 1965 trip to Prague, where the beat poet was named King of the May by students, then detained and deported in a sign of ongoing struggles and more to come.
"It became a Rorshach blotter where we could debate our different visions of what this stuff is all about," the writer said.
In the updated version of "Pantagleize," the Ginsberg character -- played by Randy Kovitz -- has encounters with a quirky guide, a sexy spy and a nasty dictator. As in the circa-1920s original, revolution is sparked when the protagonist unwittingly utters a secret password.
Mr. Ball, who found his way to theater after being offered a job in the foreign service, was himself in Prague during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which eventually led to the division of Czechoslovakia. He also taught English in Slovakia in the early '90s, during that country's breakup.
It was his introduction to the work of absurdist playwright Vaclav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia, that turned his head toward the theater.
"Pantagleize" is a dark comedy that targets governmental militarism and something more.
"The original play also was critical of what was naive and misguided about revolutionaries," he said. "The other question we asked was, 'What were we supposed to think about Occupy and Anonymous [as an American movement]'? To what extent, even if we agree with the message, do we agree with tactics?"
Creating farce and physical comedy from a serious subject is hard enough, but when your venue is settled, well, Mr. Ball was able to laugh in retrospect. Writing became a fluid exercise until Quantum settled on the Lexington Technology Center in Point Breeze.
He noted that costume designer Susan Tsu was intricately involved in helping the actors find their kooky characters. The cast includes Tony Bingham, Weston Blakesley, Kimberly Parker Green, Lisa Ann Goldsmith, Alex Knell, Randy Kovitz, Max Pavel, Erika Strasburg, Sam Turich and Abdiel Vivancos.
Throughout the process, there was a consistent voice in Mr. Ball's ear.
The play is dedicated to the late director and CMU professor Mladen Kiselov, whose words about free speech were inspiration.
"Mladen was always saying to us Americans that we have all these freedoms, especially freedom of speech, and we don't use it enough in the theater. For me, as an adaptor, it's led me to ask before I start a project, 'What can be free speech about this show? What should we be saying about the subject where there might be some resistance? What kind of conversation do we want to start?' "