Perhaps one of the best ways to spend a Friday night is, surprisingly, in a cold warehouse. Why? For a theatrical performance. Upon entering the Quantum Theatre location, strings with dull filament lightbulbs hang overhead and plastic drapes over various walls and over the seating structure. The space feels inherently secret. The set hints to the absurd and surreal nature of the coming play; chairs hang upside down on the wall, picture-less picture frames hang tilted, and another chair floats nearby, looming over the set for someone to sit in and watch.
Quantum Theatre’s Collaborators hones in on a story about artistic freedom, politics, and family. The black comedy tells the story of Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, who is given the ultimatum of writing a celebratory play for Joseph Stalin’s birthday in order to save his own censored play. The story is mostly true sans occasional twists of the surreal as visions of Stalin dance about in Bulgakov’s head — and chase him about with a typewriter with comedic music blasting in the background. Shifting from hilarious to absolutely menacing, the play highlights quirky, sometimes caricature like characters. Truly, the dark humor sucks you right in. At some points, I stopped taking notes for the review because I could not stop laughing. The humor exists both on the grand scale and the tiniest detail. However, the comedy cannot survive in this play’s world forever as the threat of political terrorism and fascism become all consuming.
Carnegie Mellon School of Drama’s own Jed Allen Harris was drawn back to Quantum to direct this particularly timely play. After all, with the current threat to the National Endowment of the Arts, Collaborators begins to take form as a terrifying reflection in a present mirror. “How much of your artistic soul will you sell to save your artistic soul?” asks Harris, framing the play in a dilemma that has tormented artists from Stalinist Russia to present day America. Susan Tsu, professor of costume design in the School of Drama, joins Harris in his mission to bring this show to life with costumes rich in texture: leather, fur, and fabric soaked through with blood.
On a campus arguing about Make America Great Again hats on Overheard, censorship and fascism are hot-button topics. If one is looking to venture into Pittsburgh and experience thought-provoking, comedic, and sometimes terrifying art, then Quantum’s Collaborators is a viable nighttime adventure for a curious theatergoer. Student tickets are 18 dollars when called for ahead of time. The play runs until April 30.