Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Quantum Theater's "Collaborators" Closes 2016-17 Season

Scene from "Collaborators" Credit: Quantum Theatre


Known for its penchant for producing provocative, sophisticated plays in unusual settings, Quantum Theatre is closing out yet another season with the American premier of John Hodge's "Collaborators," a work billed as both serious and comic. Any drama in which Stalin is portrayed as one of the major characters has to have dire implications, and this Olivier Award-winner for Best New Play in its 2011 premiere at the National Theatre, London certainly fits the bill.

Based on actual events experienced by real historical figures, the play pits oppressed writer, Mikail Bulgakov, against Russia's ruthless dictator in a Kafka-esque encounter that takes place one year before the outbreak of World War Two. Though based in truth, Hodge's play also veers off into surreal fantasy as it explores the pressures and shackles imposed on artistic freedom by tyrannical regimes around the world.

The venue for this captivating and challenging drama with a cast of 11 is a warehouse behind Bakery Square, located at 6500 Hamilton Avenue in Pittsburgh. A few days before the play's opener on April 6, Quantum's artistic director, Karla Boos and director Jed Allen Harris consented to engage in a Q & A designed to further explore this most intriguing work.

Q: To begin - a rather ubiquitous though oft-posed question. Why did you chose to stage this particular play? And Mr. Harris, why did you consent to direct?
A: Boos - I liked the play long before current political events made it so topical, for its blend of surreal comedy and gritty realism, it's sparky ideas.
A: Harris - The combination of intelligence, humor, surreal theatricality and at the core a deep heart is why I was interested in directing this play.

Q: "Collaborators" playwright John Hodge also wrote the screenplay for "Trainspotting," the 1996 British black comedy drama film, ranked 10th by the British Film Institute in its list of Top 100 British films of all time. Do you see any similarities in style or mood between the two works?
A: Boos - They're very similar, that mix of fantasy and grit.


Martin Giles as Stalin Credit: Quantum Theatre

Q: It seems hard to imagine that a work set in Stalinist Russia that deals with such momentous issues could have a comedic element. Just how much humor is Hodge able to insert into his script?
A: Boos - Well, it's dark humor, and the thing that makes it SUPER dark is current events, where it's no joke that a dictator or even the ruler of a supposedly
democratic nation could rewrite the rules, strong arm the opposition, and control the media. But yeah, you gotta laugh, and we do, sometimes over the sheer absurdity, but also because Hodge makes the nasty characters very human too, like the NKVD strongman who turns out to have a secret wish to work in the theatre!
A: Harris - There is a lot of humor in the first act surrounding the Bulgakov household and then the developing relationship between Stalin and Bulgakov. The play retains some humor in the second act but gets darker.

Q: I'm rather curious to know if there's any relationship to the play and its venue at the warehouse near Bakery Square, or did the choice of the site have little or nothing to do with the play?
A: Boos - The site works great, allowed the designers to build the world they wanted, it's got grit and a feeling of being subterranean, like Stalin's lair under the Kremlin!
A: Harris - The site is a deteriorating former slaughter house; so was the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Tony Bingham as Bulgakov and Martin Giles as Stalin in ?Collaborators" Credit: Quantum Theatre

Q: Casting for the role of Stalin alone seems to have been a Herculean effort. Was it as difficult as it appears and what about the other players? Anything we should know about them, especially Tony Bingham cast as the distraught writer, Bulgakov?
A: Boos - Tony is playing a career-defining role, he's just a marvel. And I don't mean to imply that Martin isn't! But we knew Martin would rock Stalin exactly as he is. In a way that was the easiest to cast- and then the costume geniuses under Susan Tsu went to work! Bulgakov could have gone many different ways; I can't imagine it better than in Tony's hands.
A: Harris - I knew I wanted to cast Martin Giles as Stalin before I had finished reading the play. His combination or intelligence, theatricality in acting style and understanding of comic timing was spot on for the role. I had a strong feeling that Tony Bingham would be right for Bulgakov, mainly for the same reasons as Marty for Stalin. It was immediately clear that he was right for the role in his initial audition. He was gracious enough to read with almost all those who auditioned for the other roles. The whole cast is extremely strong, and they all have made major contributions to the production.

Q: Mr. Harris, is there anything in particular you're attempting to emphasize or highlight in your work as director?
A: Harris - As far as what I am emphasizing in the play is its heart, its mind and its humor.

Q: A quick Google search of writer Mikail Bulgakov turned up a citation that claims his novel "The Master and Margarita" has been regarded as one of the 20th Century's literary masterpieces. Are either of you familiar with the work?  Bulgakov's also credited with several plays, and I wonder if either of you have experienced  live or read one of his dramatic works?
A: Boos - I love The Master and Margarita- I think many theater people have read it?
A: Harris - Yes, I have read much of Bulgakov's work.

Q: I've read that the play is based in truth. But how much of the onstage narrative is really historically accurate and how much is artistic license?
A: Boos - Hodge wondered, as perhaps many have then and now, what exactly drove dissident playwright Bulgakov to write this (bad) flattering play about Stalin. The fact that Stalin admired (and did not banish) Bulgakov is true and well known. So Hodge, a writer himself, went down the rabbit hole of that relationship.
A: Harris - The play is based on the fact that Bulgakov wrote a biographical play about Stalin. It is true that he had previously written a letter to Stalin asking to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union. It is true that he received a phone call from Stalin and that his play The White Guard was produced by The Moscow Art Theatre. The rest of the play is basically conjecture.

Q: Would you care to speak on the surreal elements of the play?
A: Harris - Surrealism is used when realism is inadequate.

Q: In light of the current climate that berates journalism and freedom of expression and threatens to cut public funding for the arts, how relevant is the play to recent  political developments?
A: Boos - Very. Artists live in a context like everyone else. Right now Saturday Night Live is having a record year, there's lots of fodder for satirists, artists of all kind.
But it's not so funny that Trumps policies are going to perpetuate themselves- by design- and they're limiting access to vast swaths of the population. They're cruel. I believe they actually hope to rend powerless if not actually eliminate undesirable, working class people, people of color, through terrible, inaccessible healthcare and lack of education. Art for the people? Completely irrelevant then.
A: Harris - I'll let the audience decide if the play is relevant to the current political climate.

"Collaborators runs from April 6 through 30 at 6500 Hamilton Avenue, Pittsburgh, (behind Bakery Square). Tickets are $38 - $51. Details on additional events, nearby restaurant options or pre-ordering a dinner to enjoy onsite are at also on Quantum’s website www.quantumtheatre.com/collaborators.

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