My first time visiting the Point. Listening to 10 for 21 — Quantum Theatre’s audio adaptation of The Decameron, directed by John Shepard, adapted by Martin Giles, with sound design by Steve Shapiro. The voice talent is phenomenal, with ensemble moments that nicely frame the intimate and personal storytelling sessions.
I live about an hour away from Pittsburgh, and though I do go into the city regularly (or I did, before the pandemic), I’m usually going there to see something specific. When I have free time, I am not motivated to drive for an hour in order to spend my downtown exploring the city on foot. But at the close of a week when I was all caught up on my marking, I got an email from Quantum inviting me to preview the show over the weekend, and so I went for it.
The framing narrative in Quantum’s production involves a pandemic pod taking a walk through downtown Pittsburgh, with each taking a turn to narrate a story. In keeping with the source material, most of the stories include some level of bawdiness, but this an audio drama, so if you use your headphones, nobody will know why you’re tittering– unless you tell them.
Quantum has organized its 10 stories in two 5-story sessions, the “Rural” sequence being set during a visit to Frick Park, and the other an “Urban” sequence that begins at Point State Park and ends at the Trinity Cathedral churchyard. Each story is between 15 and 20 minutes long. Be sure to charge your phone, expect to download about 250MB as you stream the MP3 audio files. and expect to look like a tourist as you eyeball the map — the audio narration doesn’t provide turn-by-turn navigation for pedestrians.
Giles’s adaptation shows masterful creative work that maintains the tone of the source material, while engaging in varying degrees with modernization and experimenting with the “walking around in Pittsburgh” frame.
The stand-alone episodes don’t form a unified arc. Narrators sometimes stop in the middle of a story to comment, in character, on their physical surroundings (which are also your surroundings, if you’re doing the walk). Sometimes these digressions seemed forced, like a commercial break in a made-for-TV movie. These scripted nods to the physical setting worked best for me when they involved the framing narrative, but my favorite involved the narrator inviting her friends (and us) to touch an old wall — a really clever way to help us get into the right mindset.
As you would expect from the source material, the stories feature passionate young lovers, rascally servants, women in their prime neglected by their self-obsessed aging partners, and bullies who deserve some humiliation. A story about the king who lusts after young twin girls ventures right away into cringeworthy territory, though it’s balanced by sensible advice from the king’s honorable majordomo. One story explains the outdated gender dynamics by presenting it as an old tale; some stories are tweaked, while others are thoroughly overhauled and updated. The science fiction setting of one story is fun but not much more than a veneer, but another story snaps with a woke “power-to-the-people” vibe, and another masterfully cultivates a rich gangster/noir tone (amplified by a raspy jazz score).
I was particularly impressed by Matt Henderson’s layered performance as the mild-mannered “Panfilo,” who narrates the first-person story of a fast-talking celebrity preacher. And after so many quirky stories that mock and jibe and revel and tease, the final story, narrated by Emilia Suarez, is a gut punch, bringing to our cynical modern world a purely romantic trope about first love.
As coronavirus vaccines get into more people’s arms, and as the professional theatre companies start making cautious plans to open up again for live, in-person performances, before long we’ll be looking back fondly at what we learned from these pandemic-era theatrical experiments. Quantum is known for making theatrical events happen in remarkable spaces (such as the unforgettable King Lear at the Carrie Blast Furnace).
Thanks to a talented team (including voices, director, and writer, and sound designer), and thanks to your earbuds and your imagination, starting April 5 you have yet another chance to experience theater that moves you.