Here’s what I know: In 1988 British writer Peter Ackroyd published Chatterton, a multi-layered work using, as it’s starting point, the life and death of 18th-century poet Thomas Chatterton. If we know him at all it’s because of two things – He killed himself at 17 and 100 years later the Romantics took him up as a symbol. Poems were written, praised were sung and someone named Henry Wallis painted a famous portrait of him lying, just dead, in a garret. Wallis used a poet named George Meredith as his model for Chatterton and, just to prove that men are pigs no matter the century, he ran off with Meredith’s wife whom he then abandoned when she got pregnant.
In Chatterton, Ackroyd explores the tale of the suicidal youth, Wallis’ painting of the portrait and an invented third story. Here we meet contemporary poet Charles Wychwood, his wife Vivien, and a bunch of art world denizens, most especially Harriet Scrope, a novelist hiring Wychwood to ghost write her memoirs.
Reading various reviews of the novel (you didn’t really think I read the book did you? I’m flattered.) Anyway, the reviews talk about one of Chatterton’s themes being forgery … everyone in the three time periods is involved in some sort of fraud. Or at least deception. And Ackroyd is saying that just because something is fake, that doesn’t mean it’s not authentic. For instance, Chatterton achieved notoriety writing poetry passed off as being from a 15th century poet. The motive and attribution may have been fraudulent, but the poetry was real.
Here’s something else I know; Quantum Theatre’s artistic director Karla Boos, in collaboration with Martin Giles, adapted Chatterton into an entertainment experience Boos calls “3-D Theater.”
Let’s see how to explain this. The event takes place in Trinity Cathedral downtown and you are assigned the story of one of the three principals; Chatterton, Wychwood or Scrope. Then you troop through the various rooms and passages following one of those three and witness major episodes in their stories.
I’ve been asked a few times, so here’s some stuff you might want to know. You can’t see the whole thing in one night. If you want the complete Ackroyd/Boos/Giles experience you’d need to go three times. Additionally, part of the evening includes an intermission dinner brought to you by one of Pittsburgh’s many trendy hot chefs (check the schedule to see who’s cooking when.) And there’s a fair amount of walking and standing so if mobility’s an issue you should talk with Quantum before you book.
That’s what I know, now here’s what I think. In the parking lot elevator after the show a couple noticed I had the program in my hand and somewhat timidly asked “Did you understand it?” I had to think for a moment before I replied: “No.” But, here’s the thing, I don’t think it’s important that you do. Boos, who also directs, has created a sort of amusement park ride – you strap yourself in and just go along for the fun. Occasionally you’re plunked down into scenes involving characters you haven’t met talking about things you don’t know. And, by design it’s all very disjointed so you can’t “know” what’s going on. It’s much better if you consider the evening a series of dramatic snapshots; enjoy what you can, then scroll through to the next.
Because I recently had knee surgery (I’m okay now, but you’re a dear for asking) I ended up talking the less-strenuous Scrope’s track. And I think I really lucked out. Scropes is a ludicrously funny character – a batty old British broad conniving and scheming duplicitous plots and played with relish and gusto by Helena Ruoti. An actor I knew once summed up his crazy mother like this: “Imagine Amanda Wingfield played by Auntie Mame.” That perfectly describes Ruoti’s lunatic performance, trundling around the Cathedral in a fuchsia Chanel suit, inhaling gin and talking to her dead stuffed cat Mr. Gaskill.
She often appears with Tammy Tsai as a haute monde arts writer (there’s a subplot about a forged painting) and those scenes recall AbFab’s Patsy and Eddie. Scropes eventually crosses paths and swords with an excoriatingly bitchy art dealer, played with enormous hilarity by Alan Sanford.
Those three just made me laugh and laugh. And I say I’m lucky because it seems (although I can’t be sure) that the other two tracks are considerably more somber involving poets talking about, and reciting, poetry… a situation about which my feelings have been best described by Fran Lebowitz: “If you are of the opinion that the contemplation of suicide is sufficient evidence of a poetic nature, do not forget that actions speak louder than words.”
There are downsides. I missed seeing, or only saw fragments of, performances by some very strong local actors; Tony Bingham, Ken Bolden, Giles, Tim McGeever, Jeff Monahan, Gayle Pazerski and Jonathan D. Visser. And, too, Scrope’s storyline ends well before the rest of the play so I spent the last half of the second act in the middle of some wackiness I just didn’t get … especially a ‘Round the Horne “Julian & Sandy” bit which seemed to have come out of nowhere.
Hats off to all the designers who’ve put in such effort, and the squadron of staff and crew who make the evening run as smoothly as it does.
There’s a term, “pentimento,” used in the art world to describe an extant painting showing traces of a work created before or underneath the same canvas. The echoes of the past informing the present would seem to be a major element of Ackroyd’s work … and we lose that here because Boos has, instead, siloed the stories. And, too, I think of my good friend Stephen Sondheim and how he’s always banging on about content dictating form – I confess I don’t see that Ackroyd’s content has been illuminated in the form of Quantum’s retelling.
But, again, I’m not sure how important (if at all) any of that is. Boos and company have created a funhouse attraction and you’re in for quite a ride.
Chatterton continues through October 28. Trinity Cathedral, Downtown. www.quantumtheatre.com/chatterton/