Well, we expect odd from Quantum Theatre, this time at the Lexington Technology Center, a few blocks from Construction Junction in the East End. "Pantagleize" (1929) by the Belgian Michel de Ghelderode, is from that messy time between the wars. But it's really quite familiar, being the old story of an innocent freshly arrived in a dangerous situation he doesn't begin to understand, whereupon he either plays it like a clever con or it plays him like a fortunate fool.
Think of Gogol's "The Inspector General," better known perverted into a Danny Kaye film of the same name. Or think of any film with Bob Hope arriving in the saloon dressed like a paleface gunslinger to the amusement of many and the irritation of the few who want to kill him.
That's roughly the situation with Pantagleize, who arrives in some vaguely Mitteleuropean country, where the consonants overwhelm the vowels, and then unwittingly sets loose a revolution. Fortunately the oppressive state is personified by a bumbling dictator so we all expect ... well, what?
That's where this new few-holds-barred adaptation by Jay Ball, abetted extensively by co-conspirator and director Jed Allen Harris, catches us very much by surprise. This is in line with Mr. Harris' honorary position as Pittsburgh's last remnant of the in-your-face arts politics of the '60s. That's a position he takes seriously, but it carries baggage that can be (and is here) more politics than art.
So whether you think the ending is a justified and maybe necessary end to the fun we've been having or that it's an unwarranted switch into a radically different key, let me know.
It's true to the cruelty that I'm told runs through de Ghelderode's work.
But the bulk of the play is much closer to the comic joy of Chaplin, Mel Brooks and Dario Fo. (Of course, they have their dark sides, too.) Mr. Ball's adaptation turns Pantagleize into a version of the youngish Allen Ginsberg on the occasion of that Beat poet's 1965 visit to Czechoslovakia to be "King of May." He was swiftly ejected and the abortive Prague Spring followed (no connection?) in 1968.
Still, this is mainly a knock-down, all-out farce. The first act takes awhile to get the ball rolling, setting up what it will gleefully knock down later, especially in Act 2, but then it does so with zest.
Ginsberg provides some funny parallels (except that Pantagleize likes girls -- a lot). Randy Kovitz plays him effectively, very deadpan, the true American innocent who thinks he knows it all but doesn't really know much, except that he does turn out to know some things that are important.
Everyone will have their favorite actors and scenes. High on any list is the dictator, Prezidente, played by a demented Tony Bingham, gathering advice from other powerful world leaders -- Pinochet, Gadhafi, Idi Amin and Margaret Thatcher, all also played by Mr. Bingham, courtesy of large-screen videos. It's a triumph.
And he couldn't do it without Kevin Krasner's videos, let alone the fine lights, costume and sound.
Let me also praise Mr. Bingham's pairing with Lisa Ann Goldsmith's Rachel, both in matching leathers and wearing mirror-image eye patches. Ms. Goldsmith's equal among the women is the wonderful Kimberly Parker Green, who mines the comedy of authority as both a preening star TV journalist and later a judge in a show trial.
Among the others, most of whom run around in several roles, Abdiel Vivancos is positively edible as Baboosh, the curly-haired idealist, and who could resist Sam Turich, underused as Pest. ("That's Phsht." Pest?" "No, Phsht!" "Pesht?" It could go on forever.)
But all hail Weston Blakesley as Prezidente flunky Krip, who appears first disguised (get this) as a table. His hair is a comedy of its own, and his appreciation of his medal melts your heart. He's the busiest possible one-man apparatchik -- every dictator should have one.
Messrs. Ball and Harris rope in references as far afield (or near to home) as CNN, Pussy Riot, Google, you name it. Old hippy jokes proliferate, and you can take "old hippie jokes" both ways. "Vaht eef I cruned myszelf kink?" someone says -- you have to enjoy the comedy of mispronunciation and translation.
The clown of misrule is a powerful figure. Consider your own favorite peace clowns: Abbie Hoffman, Zonker Harris, Brian of Nazareth. But be prepared to consider Thailand, Syria, Ukraine and Geronimo, as well. All in under two hours.
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