It’s not easy to do wacky physical comedy about a dead-serious subject. And when the time comes for theater reviewers to give informal recognition for Best This and That of the current season, Quantum Theatre’s Pantagleize will be on my list for several awards.
One would be Best High Five Seen Anywhere. If you are a fan of elaborate, acrobatic handshakes and fist bumps, you may think the pre-game rituals of NBA stars like LeBron James and his teammates represent the state of the art. In this critic’s judgment, the Miami Heat can’t hold a candle to the red-hot routine pulled off by the sinister Prezidente (Tony Bingham) and his secret-police officer Krip (Weston Blakesley) in Act 2 of Pantagleize.
Another scene wins for Best Teleconference. The play deals with a rebellion in a fictional dictatorship, and when the rebels make their move, Mr. Prezidente needs peer advice. He summons a surreal panel of ruthless fellow dictators. In a row of projections across the back wall of the stage appear Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, and others. They’re pre-recorded on video, since Bingham plays them all in various disguises, while also playing the Prezidente live.
This multimedia tour de force is hilarious, if gruesome in spots. Uganda’s Idi Amin offers a simple formula for putting down uppity citizens: “Eat them before they eat you.” Then he clarifies the advice: “That is not a metaphor!” He proceeds to demonstrate his technique, diving into a meal of squirming leg meat, as the audience howls and squirms along.
Further prize-winning scenes include the Show Trial of the Year, in which a group of unlucky rebels get their perfunctory day in court before sentencing. Some of the slapstick
rivals the show trial in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, such as when Krip (pronounced “Creep”) is called as a witness. He has lost his voice—doesn’t seem up to ratting on people out loud—so the court agrees to let him testify in “interpretive dance.”
Yet the serious side of the play is reflected in that “telling” little detail. Pantagleize is more than wall-to-wall silliness. Along with the virtuoso physical humor there are moments of pathos and stark reflection, as befits the topic.
Our age has been fraught with citizen uprisings in the real world—in Syria and Ukraine, in places from Africa to Asia. Even in the United States, through movements like Occupy Wall Street. When people want a better society than the one they feel is grinding them down, what can they do? What can we who are more fortunate do to help? The play is meant to raise these questions; indeed it is rooted in a chain of real-world events that brought it to its present form.
Stories Behind the Story
Quantum’s play is actually the world premiere of a new Pantagleize. The playbill calls it an “adaptation” of the original written by the Belgian author Michel de Ghelderode in 1929. For Europeans, that was a turbulent time as well. Revolutions and wars had toppled old monarchies, only to pave the way for new autocracies—in Stalin’s Russia and Mussolini’s Italy; in Portugal and in the Germany soon to be led by Hitler. Often, too, hapless rebellions by workers and/or intellectuals had been squashed outright.
In de Ghelderode’s Pantagleize (which he dubbed “a farce to make you sad”), the title character is a French philosopher of little repute, a witty talker but a fool in practical life. Inadvertentlystumbling into a revolt plotted by his manservant and other discontented Parisians, he is caught and executed with the rest.
The 2014 version comes from the theater scholar Jay Ball, a professor at Central Washington University who has worked previously with Quantum. Interviewed by phone, Ball insisted he is “not a playwright,” just an adaptor. I beg to differ.
Ball has utterly re-created Pantagleize. Although he kept the basic story arc of a loose-cannon intellectual getting caught up in a revolution, the specifics and all of the language are new, and though the play is set in an unnamed Eastern European country, Ball wrote it from an American perspective—shaped, in part, by his own youthful sojourns in the former Czechoslovakia.
He visited the country as a college student in 1989, shortly before the breakup of the Soviet bloc. Then he returned in 1992 to teach English at a Slovak university. Ball was studying international relations and prepping for a career in the U.S. State Department, but eventually grew disenchanted with that line of work. He said that when he heard a U.S. spokesperson trying to explain away our country’s ineffective response to the 1994 Rwanda genocide, he decided “I can’t be that person.” Inspired by the Czech president Vaclav Havel, an absurdist playwright and dissident under Soviet rule, Ball chose theater instead.
Today, 20 years later, one result is the play you can see at Quantum.
From Czechs and Absurdity to Checks and Balances
This Pantagleize is absurd in the manner of Havel’s plays, satires of life in dictatorship. As Ball noted, “When people lived in a world governed by irrational rules, one way they rebelled, at first, was with some of the best jokes ever told.” Also, while the new Pantagleize doesn’t end with our hero dying amid the corpses of his friends, as the original did, it does pack some heavy freight with the hilarity: grim consequences emerge.
The American angle is drawn from a real historical incident. In 1965, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg went to Czechoslovakia. Young people loved him, so enthralled by his extreme eccentricity that they crowned him King of May—chief of their annual spring revelry—until that same eccentricity got Ginsberg drummed out of the country by the Communist regime.
So Jay Ball made his Pantagleize character a dissolutely brilliant American poet (played for Quantum by Randy Kovitz). The guy shows up in dictator-land blissfully uninterested in politics; he’s there to promote inner peace and free love, and to have a whooping good time. The catch is that his chauffeur, Baboosh (Abdiel Vivancos), turns out to be part of a revolutionary cell. The gang is made up of comical but earnest young folks … and the plot unfolds from there.
Ball said that in writing the script—which involved a lot of back-and-forth with the play’s director, Jed Allen Harris, plus the cast and production team—a number of balances had to be struck. One was “how dark versus how cartoony to make the play”: for instance, “to what extent to present the revolutionaries as sincere or as buffoons.”
Ethnic sensitivitieshad to be considered. Having lived with young Eastern Europeans who grew up in totalitarian times, Ball riffs on quirks he observed in them(notably, an intense fascination with all things American; one rebel’s ardently held dream is scoring “two tickets to a Rufus Wainwright concert”). In the end, said Ball, “I really hope it comes through that I wasn’t trying to do a Borat.”
What I think you’ll find here is Borat humor with a different sort of bite. Not all the characters remain ridiculous. They are changed by what they get themselves into. Pantagleize the poet expands his mystical consciousness to include social consciousness, and the play has snarky lines that carry sociopolitical sting. In one scene, with the revolution under way, a BBC reporter asks Pantagleize what he thinks. The poet fires back, “What do you think?” Says the woman, “I—I don’t think. I’m a reporter.”
Above all the play is a moving experience, in both the physical and emotional senses. When Pantagleize is crowned king of springtime festivities in the fictional land, just as Ginsberg was in Czechoslovakia, he is required to make a rousing speech. Far from a political tirade, it’s a passionate drunken ramble about peace and love and living the good life in harmony with one and all. But I guarantee that if you’re sitting in the audience, you’ll feel like you’re right there in the crowd on the streets. You will be uplifted. And when the play is over, perhaps, unlike the BBC gal, you will think.
Along with those already named, the cast has Lisa Ann Goldsmith as the rebel Rachel, Sam Turich as her buddy Pest, Erika Strasburg as Blanka, and Kimberly Parker Green, Max Pavel, and Alex Knell in multiple roles. Each one is very good. Together, they’re an ensemble to shake up any tired old regime.
Pantagleize, adapted from the Michel de Ghelderode play by Jay Ball, runs through April 27. Like all Quantum productions, it is staged at an unusual location; this one is in the Lexington Technology Center at 400 N. Lexington St., on the fringe of Point Breeze. For dates, times, and tickets visit Quantum Theatre or call 412-362-1713.
Photos courtesy of Quantum and Heather Mull.
Mike Vargo is a freelance writer and editor based in Pittsburgh.