As I pulled up to the Allegheny Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and then got back in my car and looped around to the former Northside Library (thinking to myself that I should’ve paid more attention to that preceding instructional e-mail from a generous Quantum staff member) I really had no idea what to expect out of the night. I had never been to a performance by the Quantum Theatre before and was used to grabbing a glass of wine, finding my cushy seat, sitting through an hour or two of performance, and hoping there is an intermission to relieve myself of the wine I regretted drinking. As we all gathered around in the lobby area we were instructed that the play would take place in several rooms of the library where we would be standing, sitting, and occasionally asked to move. This is different, I thought, as I joined the pack of anxious performance-goers up the stairs to the first scene.
Eerie is the only word that can be used to describe the Northside Library and the rooms inside. I overheard an audience member talking about how the library wasn’t used for anything nowadays, “well besides this,” he explained to his friend. This type of building was more than perfect for the scenes that followed. We entered into what may have been a past version of the setting’s main registry office or simply a dreary dream of the space seen through the eyes of an employee. It was a desolate hollow place made from the stuff of nightmares with seemingly forgotten names etched onto the walls in chalk. The present day registry in the next room wasn’t much better.
The all too familiar boring office setting where employees slowly lose hope of their dreams and goals was what surrounded the audience throughout the night. The first character we see in this room is what I assumed to be an employee of the registry climbing up a ladder to file a document with a red string wrapped around his ankle. It is later revealed that employees of the registry must tie this string around them when going into the room where the records of those who have died are kept. “Isn’t that crazy that they have to put that rope around them when they go in there so they don’t get lost,” said a woman to those accompanying her in the audience. It was interesting to hear her say that when I had initially interpreted the string as a leash, which chained the employees to their unfulfilling jobs and lives. This was what was so great about this play throughout, though. Each individual audience member could interpret things how they wanted.
I later came to find out that the man I thought was a random employee was actually the one of the main characters, Senhor José. Well, not exactly. Senhor José as the main speaking part of this character was portrayed by James Fitzgerald, but rather a part of the mind of Senhor José or his alter ego if you will. I absolutely loved this aspect of the play. It kept reminding me of the 2007 film, Mr. Brooks, with Kevin Costner and William Hurt. Hurt is Costner’s alter ego in this film just as Thompson is to Fitzgerald in this performance and I must say both of the duos pulled this concept off seamlessly. I saw similarities in the alter egos of these two performances as they pushed the main characters to do things they wouldn’t be confident enough to do on their own, stood by their sides in times of need, and even conducted the same mannerisms simultaneously. It truly takes a pair that is in sync to successfully execute this technique and Quantum couldn’t have picked two better performers to do so.
We are briefly introduced to the Registrar in the first speaking scene, but see much more of his personality in the following where we are taken into a room where he sits in a large chair behind an even larger table slanting in his favor. I heard an audience member (apparently I was in a mood to eavesdrop) describe this setting as “dreamlike.” I couldn’t agree more. I feel this was also a good representation of how the employees saw the Registrar as somewhat God-like in the workplace setting. This is also where Senhor José starts his journey of finding the unknown woman and begins this by chatting with one of the unknown woman’s previous neighbors played by Bridget Connors.
I don’t know why the decision was made to have Knight speak for Connors on and off throughout this scene, but I’m certainly glad it was. Knight’s voice was a commanding, articulate presence as Connors and he morphed into the same synchronization we saw play out through the performance of Fitzgerald and Thompson.
My only critique of the setting throughout the night would be the inability of the audience members to predict the character’s movements and give them the space they needed accordingly. I realize this is a similar concept that Quantum took on in their previous production Tamara, which I did enjoy, but didn’t think I was alone in the sentiment that I was often in the way of the art unfolding. I groundlessly decided to take a step back in one of the scenes right before Fitzgerald rushed through the place I had just been standing. Luckily, I had some baby sheep to look at and calm me from this near collision. No, you didn’t misread that, there are real live adorable baby sheep in this play and if you are on the fence about going to see it I hope this sealed your decision.
Nevertheless, this incredibly relatable storyline resonated with me in an emotional way as I found myself wanting to give Senhor José a hug after all was said and done. The author of the original novel, José Saramago, once wrote that out of all of the characters he had created he felt that Senhor José was the closest to himself. After viewing this performance I can see parts of Senhor José in many others I know as well as myself. There was a particular line I found myself mulling over afterwards. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it had to do with the thrill of the search being more powerful than finding what exactly it is you are searching for. We all find our fulfillment in some form or another. Without this sense of purpose we all would become unknown women and men.
All the Names runs through May 2nd. Tickets and more information can be found here.
Special thanks to Quantum Theatre for two complimentary press tickets. Photo credits: Heather Mull.