Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – “Nice and easy does it” does not fit the Quantum Theatre vocabulary as dictated by its founder, Karla Boos. An intriguing story that presents a theatrical conundrum is much more her style.
Spending time with “Chatterton,” the historic novel and British best-seller by Peter Ackroyd, presented Ms. Boos with both — a story she wanted to tell as a theatrical experience and the conundrum of “How the heck do I do that?”
The answer comes starting Friday, when Quantum Theatre’s “Chatterton” opens in nearly every square inch of Trinity Cathedral, the Downtown Episcopal church built in 1872.
The multipronged story of “Chatterton” takes place in three time periods and follows the interconnectedness of three poets and a Sherlockian investigation into the past.
It arrives at a time when the question of what is truth and what is fake, and how the present perceives history, has been poking its way into our daily lives.
With “Chatterton,” Quantum builds on its own history of mobile-audience immersion that includes “Tamara,” which had previous productions before it was presented at Rodef Shalom Congregation in 2014. This time around, Ms. Boos has created her own version of a multitrack experience, dividing audiences of up to 120 into three groups per performance, with an intermission dinner.
A little history before we arrive in the present day at Trinity Cathedral.
Thomas Chatterton was a clever British teenager who began publishing poems by the age of 11, passing off his works as that of an imaginary 15th-century poet. His work impressed politicians and aristocrats, but he was impoverished when he committed suicide at age 17, in 1770.
He became a muse for many in the Romantic era, and was immortalized in the famous Henry Wallis oil painting “The Death of Chatterton,” which shows a young man with flaming red hair on his deathbed. Modeling for that painting in 1856 was Victorian poet George Meredith, who lived to be 91 and features in Mr. Ackroyd’s story. Oscar Wilde, in his essay “The Decay of Lying,” wrote of Meredith, “Who can define him? His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning.”
In the “Quantum” adaptation of the “superb novel” (per The New York Times book review), we meet Charles Wychwood, a struggling poet who in the present day is on a quest to solve the mystery: Is what we believe about Chatterton truth or fiction?
“Thomas Chatterton is the uniting character,” Ms. Boos said. “He’s the reason that the themes of forgery and authenticity permeate the piece.”
In the 19th century, Meredith, another poet who posed as Chatterton, “adds another layer” to the question of authenticity.
With Wychwood, “These three guys come together, and many, many characters who surround their lives.”
Familiar faces in the cast from Quantum and other Pittsburgh stages include Helena Ruoti, Martin Giles, Tony Bingham, Ken Bolden, Gayle Pazerski, Tim McGeever, PICT Classic Theatre’s Alan Stanford and, as Chatterton, Jonathan Visser.
As the poets’ stories unfold, audience members will find there are few corners of the historic building left unexplored or untouched by Quantum’s creative team, including scenic designer Stephanie Mayer-Staley.
The setting lends an air of authenticity to the theme, with the 18th century Downtown building standing in for St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, England, in “a brilliant way,” said Ms. Boos of the book’s original setting.
“The folks behind this beautiful seat of the Episcopal church in Pittsburgh couldn’t have been more welcoming and nicer and opening the nooks and crannies and secret spaces to Quantum to allow us to dress and transform them,” Ms. Boos said.
The Gothic Revival building has a kitchen and adjacent dining room, which allow Quantum to follow the formula that worked so well with “Tamara.”
The journey begins outdoors alongside the cathedral entrance on Sixth Street, where you will find some of America’s oldest marked gravestones west of the Atlantic coast. From there, patrons are sent in varying directions until they unite for a dinner prepared by a celebrity chef — one for each week of the run of the play. After dinner and comparing notes on what they’ve seen, the adventure continues.
On a warm late-summer day, members of the design team were working throughout the air-conditioned building. Projection designer Joe Seamans was at work in the main sanctuary, lighting designer C. Todd Brown was in an upstairs room that was completely transformed into one of the most traditional theater spaces, and Sarah Pickett of the District 5 sound team was testing the bells and whistles of the cathedral organ.
The actors were gathering in dining space — which has some surprises all its own — and awaiting our tour guide and their director, Ms. Boos.
Before she left to begin rehearsal, she had more kind words for one of “Chatterton’s” stars.
“Trinity Cathedral was very well cast,” she said. “It checked all the boxes for us, and then some.”