Playwright meets tyrant. What could possibly go wrong?
In a former slaughterhouse behind Bakery Square, Quantum Theatre takes audiences into the world of John Hodge’s Collaborators. Certainly a Pennsylvania premiere, the production is one of few staged since Collaborators won the 2012 Laurence Olivier Award for best new play produced in Britain.
Some have asked why theaters didn’t produce this play about a Soviet dictator who advocates artistic censorship, fake news, and forceful control of his citizens back in 1938. In 2017, how can an American theater company resist sharing this unfortunately timely dark comedy now? And as audience members, you should not resist the urge to see Collaborators at Quantum through April 30.
In the hands of Pittsburgh master director Jed Allen Harris, Collaborators shines with terrifically satisfying laughter, tears, and truth. It’s not a menu just anyone can capably serve up. But just as one scene where the planked stage becomes a big dining table for all of the stellar cast suggests, Harris’ artistic team knows how to create a theatrical meal you’ll be telling your friends about.
A struggling but talented playwright merits the attention of Joseph Stalin, head of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. The writer is strong-armed to write a play for the tyrant’s 60th birthday. While the premise is fictional, the “surreal fantasy” is based on the real experiences of Mikhail Bulgakov, a former physician who suffered censorship when writing for the Moscow Art Theater in the 1930s despite Stalin’s appreciation for his work. The play implies that the writer’s wife Yelena will be endangered if Mikhail does not comply.
In Collaborators, screenwriter Hodge (Trainspotting, T2) melds fact and fantasies in captivating and sometimes short scenes. Harris seamlessly moves the action through the entire playing space and there’s never a dull or unengaging moment. Indeed, Collaborators is that good.
More than even Bulgakov himself might ever have dreamt, Collaborators is both timely and chilling in these early months of 2017. This is a significant production in this Pittsburgh theater season. Well-matched to Collaborators, Harris employs what he loves about making theatre that invites us to imagine and be provoked–and maybe even to be moved to action. (See our interview with Harris). He’s recreates a story from the past century that uncomfortably resonates with the present. Expect to be both moved and changed by this visit to the paranoia and fear of Stalin’s historical rule.
Through his connection to his fan Stalin, Mikhail wrestles with his conscience even as he aims to survive with Yelena. What would happen if he and Stalin switched jobs becoming the collaborators of the title? In the imagined and dangerous game, would Mikhail find himself creating policy decisions while Stalin happily writes a play praising himself? When the Communist party line seems to hold more weight than free expression, Bulgakov confronts stunning realities as he begins to lose health friends, and what he once held as the truth.
As Bulgakov, Tony Bingham is the good guy manipulated by circumstances beyond his control–a sort of George Bailey, struggling to live a good life with integrity. Nimble and charming, Bingham draws a likeable hero who experiences the best and worst of times in a stand-out performance during which he is on stage much of the time.
Dana Hardy is Yelena, his smart and concerned spouse who sweetly cares about friends and neighbors. She is strong and supportive while her husband is swept into surreal dreams and an even more surreal reality. Hardy captures how one look out for a loved one while disguising the genuine concern about their serious condition. (It’s notable that Hardy and Bingham draw on their own marriage for their work on stage.)
It’s fun until someone gets hurt, so two of the most “evil” characters are indeed delightful. Ken Bolden relishes Soviet secret police officer Vladimir, a mean bully who later gleefully insites on staging the commissioned script; he’s that guy who’s always wanted to direct. Bolden shows off his lovely range in this delightfully nuanced and engaging performance.
A merry Stalin is portrayed by Martin L. Giles. Give Giles something as multifaceted and comedic as a dictator who sees himself a playwright for results are both oddly endearing and fascinating. Giles shifts from boyish delight at offering Vodka shots in his subterranean office under the Kremlin. He joyfully clacks on the typewriter then coldly explains his job with its ridiculously long bureaucratic title.
If Bingham’s scenes with Bolden are dramatic appetizers, those with Bingham and Giles are the main course–from the opening Keystone Cops style scene when Stalin chases Bulgakov with his typewriter to their underground meet-ups along the writer’s hapless path from hope to despair.
Joe Rittenhouse as Stepan, Vladmir’s silent and lurking henchman, is a scary presence, mostly watching the action through his shades. His very presence at times characters may think they are alone is eerily physicalized when Stepan moves a prop they need, for example.
The entire ensemble of 11 shines in multiple and important roles as colorful friends and colleagues who support the loving couple’s turbulent journey. There are several visits to doctors–one rather inept (or dishonest?) doctor and another seemingly more capable physician both played by John Shepard. Mark Stevenson marks a strong return to Pittsburgh stages after a long hiatus. Dylan Marquis Meyers, Nancy McNulty, Olivia Vadnais, and Jonathan Visser complete this accomplished and versatile cast.
Harris’ design team from his Quantum production of The Task (2010) makes wonderful choices for the bricked wall warehouse space found Quantum setting as all the design elements support the storytelling. Scenic designer Narelle Sissons sets central action on a raised rough stage with properties and chairs stashed underneath. Stalin’s office at one end and a chair mounted on the wall at the other end provide clever spaces and options Susan Tsu’s costumes are well suit the period with a splash of theatrical robes and masked headpieces for the Moliere play scenes. Well placed lights by C. Todd Brown establish both well-lit and dark spaces, with sound by Joe Pino.
Collaborators closes Quantum’s 26th season and runs through April 30 at 6500 Hamilton Avenue, Pittsburgh (15206). Tickets are priced from $38 to $51. Varied special events and dining tips (including a dinner you may pre-order to enjoy onsite) are detailed on Quantum’s website.
Tips: Arrive early for lot parking or just find a convenient street spot. As temperatures vary, do dress in layers; the space can be chilly on some April evenings. May Quantum’s setting be as warm as the potential for this adventurous play programmed by Karla Boos, artistic director.
Photos by Heather Mull and Karla Boos.