Poetry in motion – a review of “Chatterton”

By Mike “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant

When Charles Wychwood (Tony Bingham), a struggling poet and author, exchanges a pack of old books for a painting in a bizarre, little curio shop, a mystery is afoot in “Chatterton.”

Way back in the late 1700s, the poet Thomas Chatteron published poems under the nom de plume Thomas Rowley at the age of eleven, but committed suicide at a seventeen. Wychwood’s painting depicts a much older Chatterton, leaving Charles and his friend Philip (Martin Giles) to speculate that the poet faked his death and lived on for years afterward, possibly forging the works of William Cowper, William Blake and others.

Just as the mystery deepens, an aging novelist, Harriet Scrope (Helena Ruoti), contacts Wychwood and asks him to help her writer her memoirs. Scrope, however, is drowning in her own guilt for plagiarizing the plots of lesser known authors.

Wychwood meets with Scrope and a variety of oddballs on his path to learning the truth about the painting much to the consternation of his wife, Vivien (Gayle Pazerski) and young son, Edward (Eamonn McElfresh or Charlie Russell, rotating the role), but the specter of Chatterton (Jonathan Visser) looms large.

Meanwhile, in the 19th Century, the painter Henry Wallis (Martin Giles) asks George Meredith (Tim McGeever) to pose as Chatterton for his painting, “The Death of Chatterton.”

The two disparate timelines connect and converge repeatedly like a DNA double helix.

“The Death of Chatterton” is an oil painting on canvas, by the English Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis. It hangs in Tate in London.

The play is adapted from Sir Peter Ackroyd’s book, “Chatterton” by artistic director Karla Boos with help from Martin Giles (as a contributor and dramaturg). Boos created and directed the event for Pittsburgh’s International Festival of Firsts, which is featuring 30 international companies and artists from 20 countries, including representation from Pittsburgh’s own arts community with never-before-seen theater, dance, music, visual arts and immersive experiences.

“Chatterton” is one of those aforementioned immersive events. At the beginning of the evening you are handed a small square of paper with a symbol on it, such as a quill, a typewriter or a paintbrush. A guide (Niko Bernstein, Kaitlin Kerr or Zev Woskoff) takes you on a journey throughout the space, sometimes intersecting with the other groups. Apparently, there is a third track that takes place in the 18th Century that intertwines into the story (from double helix to friendship bracelet), but different audience members get different experiences.

Quantum Theatre’s tagline “Theater that moves you” has never been truer as you sprint through the halls of the Trinity Cathedral trying to catch up with the action. If you get stuck behind slow moving patrons, you will miss some of the dialogue (Arrgh! Sloths!).

At intermission, a meal is served (each week a different chef from a local restaurant or caterer).

“Chatterton” has some fantastic characters played by fantastic actors, particularly Tammy Tsai’s looney Mrs. Leno (with mannequin parts to substitute for an arm and a leg); Ken Bolden’s bitchy British queen, Pat; Alan Stanford’s greedy gallery owner, Cumberland; and McGeever’s cuckolded Meredith (shining equally well as flirty painter Stewart Merk).

Bingham does a great job as the obsessed author, Wychwood, especially in a churchyard scene with Bolden that could have been too comic and over the top, a few wry looks were enough to get the audience tittering.

Ruoti is a force to be reckoned with. She chews up even the most opulent scenery. She has a rant on death and taxidermy that is hilarious (performed with a stuffed kitty).

“Chatterton” has skillful technicians applying creative solutions with light, sound and videography.

The costumes are brilliant. Kudos to Colleen Crivello and Marlene Speranza.

The only problem with “Chatterton” is that it isn’t “Tamara.” It doesn’t have that same energy and verve. The plotlines don’t coalesce as easily.

It’s also not “Dodo” which was a magical, transformative piece of theater. It’s hard not to compare it to the treasured past productions of immersive theater.

It is, however, a fine work by talented actors, expertly utilizing the charms of the cathedral, including its minuscule but venerable cemetery.

– MB

“Chatterton” runs from September 14 to October 28 at the Trinity Cathedral, 328 Sixth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.



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