“Susan Tsu has a delicious imagination,” says Pantagleize director Jed Allen Harris. Tsu, an internationally renowned designer and faculty member at the CMU School of Drama, has dressed, draped, and disguised the characters of past Quantum Theatre productions Cymbeline, The Task, and The Golden Dragon—but nothing onstage has been as outlandish and absurd as the larger-than-life ensemble of Pantagleize.
“It’s not subtle!” Tsu warns. “It is a no-holds-barred comedy. There are portions of it that feel very Marx Brothers or Three Stooges…There are disguises. There are character transitions. A lot of opportunity for some sight gags—that I’ll keep to myself.”
In one of the most memorable gags of the show, one actor plays several parts at once, portraying various dictators of the world. “That was the most fun,” Tsu says. “Early on, even before [writer Jay Ball] put pen to paper, Jed and I were talking about things we could do: oversized heads, world leaders sitting on toilets…” In the final draft, Ball worked the leader-on-the-toilet gag into Pantagleize in a different sort of scene, and Harris put Tsu to work creating the outrageous looks of the dictators.
“The style of them was driven by the inclusion of [Ugandan ruler] Idi Amin,” says Tsu. “I didn’t want a white man in blackface. It’s a very obvious mask, hokey and over the top.” While Amin is a full mask, other despots come to life with just a nose or a forehead/chin combo. Tsu spent time researching photographs of each world leader to capture authentic aspects of their real-life counterparts. While the costume designs play caricature to the extreme, each one displays components from what the rulers really wore.
The biggest challenge Tsu faced, however, was the play’s disregard for chronological exactness. “The play references Allen Ginsberg in 1965, but it also references the Occupy movement and selfies.” All of the costumes draw upon a kind of cultural consciousness. We know, for example, that the president is evil because he wears an eye patch, and that our hero is a peacenik professor-type because he’s got glasses and a blazer over a tie-dyed shirt. Because Pantagleize exists in the cartoon universe of absurdity, the play’s wardrobe can span decades. Its satirical world holds a funhouse mirror to the audience, reflecting a masked and eye-patched version of our own difficult reality. That’s part of the fun.
Pantagleize marks the second Quantum collaboration between Susan Tsu and the creative team of Harris and Ball. The three previously worked together on The Task in 2010. “Jed, Jay, and me—each of us has an activist in us, within our own mediums. We each want to be working on pieces that have political and social relevance.”
Tsu admits that the work isn’t always hard-hitting political commentary or biting satire; she’s loved designing for all the Shakespeare and musicals throughout her career. But there’s something about theater with an activist message that attracts her. Like Jay Ball in Prague and Jed Allen Harris in Bulgaria, Tsu witnessed firsthand the difficult transition of the former Soviet Union into its fractured map of new republics. In 1993, Tsu designed costumes for a production of The Balcony, starring opera legend Sarah Caldwell, at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow—a show that wrapped just before the Constitutional Crisis, during which hundreds of demonstrators were killed in a ten-day conflict with a military that supported then-President Yeltsin.
“What’s challenging,” Tsu says, “is that we are not just [producing] a comedy. There are dark moments, serious issues. It’s not exactly a crush—but it is a reality check.”
See Tsu’s costume creations take the stage in Pantagleize at the Lexington Technology Center in North Point Breeze, April 11 through April 27. Get your tickets now at quantumtheatre.com
–By Brandon Getz