Pittsburgh playwright Gab Cody's 'Prussia 1866' puts Nietzsche in a love triangle
February 5, 2015 12:00 AM
Jeff Swensen for Point Park Univ
Gab Cody, left, Drew Palajsa and Phil Winters rehearse for The Rep's "Prussia: 1866."
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Gab Cody is drawn to the wall of chairs in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Ailsa Mellon Bruce Gallery. She’s looking for examples of the 19th-century Biedermeier furniture style incorporated in the set design of her new play, “Prussia: 1866.” As she moves through the gallery, she stands before a chaise longue with an arm along one side, set forward in an exhibit of parlor furniture from a circa-1830s Pittsburgh mansion.
This piece would never do.
Where: The Rep at the Rauh Theatre, Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave. , Oakland.
When: Preview 8 tonight, then 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $24-$27, $15 preview night. pittsburghplayhouse.com or 412-392-8000. “Pay what you will” at Saturday matinees, Feb. 7, 14 and 21, subject to availability; talk-back 2 p.m. Feb. 14.
“You couldn’t use that in a farce,” she says, pointing to the elegantly curved chaise arm. “There’s no quick way in or out.”
The title of “Prussia: 1866” suggests place and time — a single day, celebrating the end of the Seven Weeks War — but that doesn’t begin to tell the wickedly twisted comedy having its world premiere at The Rep, the professional company of Point Park University.
For instance, the play features a character based on philosopher-poet Frederick Nietzsche, who was 22 and in Prussia at the time, but has no other historical basis. What playwright Cody has conjured has led Sam Turich, the play’s fight choreographer, dramaturg and Ms. Cody’s husband, to playfully describe the piece as “Nietzsche in lust.”
“It is about a proto-feminist [Rosemary, played by Ms. Cody], an early suffragette before they were calling them suffragettes, in mid-19th century Prussia, outside of Berlin. It’s about the household in which she is the assistant to a Prussian novelist,” the writer revealed.
Rosemary gets caught up in the goings-on in a house headed by a famous and beloved Prussian fiction writer, his young trophy wife and equally young protege, Nietzsche — who is having an affair with the novelist’s wife. The novelist and his assistant have been working on a book with the intent of furthering the progress of feminism. It is released with a change to the ending that sets off just one of the firestorms in their midst.
The play piles on layers of classic comedic situations and moral dilemmas, spiced with some saucy language and nudity.
“It is first and foremost an insane farce in which you need no knowledge of history and Nietzsche,” Ms. Cody says. “If you have knowledge of those things, there are elements that are layered for you. But Nietzsche is a fully embodied character; it’s not like he’s a reference. … All you need to know is the absurdity of the human condition.”
Ms Cody was inspired to write “Prussia: 1866” by the intersection of two events. She’s “grappling with a moral question in my own life [having to do with] one person’s actions. I wasn’t engaged in the event, but I was witness to it,” she says mysteriously.
While she was wondering about the person’s behavior, she also was in workshop with fellow playwright Tammy Ryan. As an exercise, Ms. Ryan brought in models of scenic designs from other plays and had the participants write a short piece based on the set.
“I chose a set that could have been a Chekhov play,” Ms. Cody recalls, and that landed her in a 19th-century mindset.
Nietzsche — the real poet-philosopher — also was an inspiration.
“Taboo-busting is one of the strong elements that drives the insanity and absurdity of farce, taking things that are sacred and shattering them. And Nietzsche is sort of the embodiment of that idea,” she says. “One of the reasons he was so profoundly affecting … is because he busted all of those taboos — religion, morality … so farce and Nietzsche go together. It’s a perfect fit for me.”
At the Carnegie Museum of Art, Ms. Cody continues to search for examples of Biedermeier furniture, reflective of middle-class European tastes and intellectual pursuits of the day. The “Prussia: 1866” sets by Stephanie Mayer-Staley are not only steeped in the time period but take “a holistic approach” to farce, Ms. Cody explains, using the design elements to further the action and support the humor in the situations.
“I really like the way comedy can address big, important questions in a way that is so entertaining that an observer has an experience of this wonderfully entertaining event and where you also have the advantages of still grappling with big ideas,” she says. “So in some ways, I think comedy is more reflective of reality — the hypocrisy, the absurdity, the contradiction is all on display in a comedy and a farce.”
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.
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