|James FitzGerald as Senhor Jose and Mark Conway Thompson in "All The Names"|
"All the Names" is a fascinating book by Nobel prize-winning author, Jose Saramago, adapted for theater and performed within an extensive, multi-chamber art installation built inside the now abandoned Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Conceptually, it could be likened to a theatrical turducken, but with all the savory promises such a composite bird holds.
Leave it to the impressive creative team assembled by Quantum Theatre’s artistic director, Karla Boos, to come up with an exciting theatrical construct that has the audience moving like an enchanted herd of peripatetic sheep from one scene to another. Through a labyrinth of rooms, up stairs and down, they follow the adventures of Senhor Jose, a low level clerk in the Registry, a government bureaucracy designed to record all the births, marriages and deaths of the inhabitants of some unidentified metropolis.
The audience’s first taste of this unique theatrical experience comes when they enter a lofty, expansive and dimly lit chamber and are handed a piece of chalk from a basket held by a mute attendant. The cryptic nature of this small token only adds to the disorientation of the drearily bleak room and the edgy anticipation of things yet to come.
As the audience assembles standing around the periphery of the room whose walls are scribbled, graffiti-like, with names, a loud, stentorian male voice explains in monotone the organization and physical structure of the Registry, like some authoritarian tour guide giving an introductory discourse.
While the initial experience might be thought to induce some low level anxiety, even fear, I felt it to be somewhat solemn and brooding. The mood continues into the remaining rooms where the same sense of gravitas permeates the other spaces - the Registrar’s office with its oddly-angled table and oversized chair, the space reserved for the files of the deceased with its index cards strew over the floor, a large fan menacingly blowing into the wind pieces of white paper tied to wooden stakes.
Senhor Jose’s own apartment, conveniently attached to the Registry, has the same sort of eerie feel as some of the more macabre settings for the television series "American Horror Story." Ironically, the space with the least amount of dreariness is a room meant to represent the cemetery, where a surprise element adds a bit of light-hearted whimsy.
The incident that initiates the plot occurs when Senhor Jose violates Registry policy by sneaking in after hours to borrow some identity cards. As a way out of the tedium from the job he’s held for more than two decades, he collects newspaper clippings written about famous personalities. Wanting to find out more about the people he collects, he takes, by mistake, the card of an obscure woman along with those of the more celebrated notables. Curiosity piqued, he becomes obsessed with finding out more about the unknown woman.
As the audience follows from room to room attempting to solve the puzzle along with the main character, they encounter TV consoles scattered here and there, their screens flickering black and white with potentially cryptic clues, a ceiling with a mouth capable of chimerical dialogue, serendipitous wall projections that help further skew the sense of reality and duple actors playing one character simultaneously.
To give some sense of Senhor Jose’s conflicting impulses, Boos, who not only directs the play but also adapted it for theater from the original novel translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, entrusts most of the character’s dialogue to the potently animated James FitzGerald while Mark Conway Thompson, with six years of movement theater company experience, mimics mime-like his thoughts and emotions with explicit clarity.
A key witness to the woman’s identity is her godmother, played convincingly by Bridget Connors, who adds her own touches of mystery and enigma to the play’s mix of otherworldly ambiance. In one key scene, she answers the questions during Senhor Jose’s impassioned interrogation through the voice of a mysterious male figure portrayed by Cameron Knight, who’s also cast in the role of the Oz-like Registrar. While Knight’s male voice speaks, Connors shows convincingly through facial expression and gestures the content and feelings associated with his verbal responses.
As the Registrar, Knight is costumed in a impeccable suit, a symbol of the authoritarian hold he has on the clerks he oversees. He’s firm and powerful without being overtly menacing and speaks in one of the most wonderfully mellifluous and unctuous male voices I’ve ever heard.
At a post-performance discussion, I learned that Boos spent at least a year preparing for the production. To get the gargantuan project off the ground, she had help from a crew of professionals. They include scenic designer Barbara Luderowski, director of Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory, famous for its inventive installation art; scenic and costume designer, Narelle Sissons; projection designer, Joseph Seamans, lighting designer, Cindy Limauro and sound designers Chris Evans and Sarah Pickett, whose evocative musical selections included both mournful Portuguese fados and compositions by Pickett, music so delightful I wish it could be made available on CD.
I mean no disrespect when I call "All the Names" a theatrical turducken. Quite the contrary, it’s not only a rare bird worthy of esteem with several artistic elements tucked inside one another, but also a provocative adventure that's very tasty to chew on.
"All the Names" a world-premiere production by Quantum Theatre, is at the original Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny, adjacent to the Hazlett Theater on Pittsburgh’s North Side through May 2. Phone 412-362-1713 or quantumtheatre.com.