Last month, when I interviewed Quantum's Karla Boos and her collaborator Peter Duschenes for a preview of this new production, there was one of those awkward little moments.
Boos and Duschenes had not just adapted their script from the 1980 novel by Finnish writer Arto Paasilinna. As our interview commenced, they were simultaneously both in rehearsal and still revising the script.
Revisions during rehearsal are common with the first production of a play, but Howling Miller, a social satire with fabulous overtones set in remote Lapland, had a specific tone they were striving to capture. Because I'd read a recent version of the script, they took the occasion of my interview to ask me how I'd describe what I'd read.
That wasn't the awkward part. The awkward part was the sort of nonplussed silence from Boos and Duschenes after I said their script struck me as a mix of Monty Python and Grimm Brothers tales.
We moved on quickly, but I later realized that the problem was what they thought I meant by "Monty Python." I never compare anything to Python unless I'm praising it, but Boos and Duschenes were perhaps thinking that I'd likened their work to the high silliness of the dead-parrot sketch, or the killer rabbit scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Rather, the script about a social-outcast miller whose fellow villagers want to put him in an insane asylum reminded me of the pointed-but-uproarious social satire in later Python films like Life of Brian or Meaning of Life.
At any rate, the stage production, which I saw last night, suggested Python but little. Rather, I was reminded of another of my favorite artworks.
Here's a mid-century microcosm where the hero, who's a little off (howling his lungs out at night, for instance) only really goes crazy after he takes the pills the village doctor prescribes to make him seem sane.
Here's a town where everybody's at least mildly batty -- but only our hero's eccentricities are deemed detrimental. Things get so bad that the only way he can buy groceries is to hold up the grocer at axe-blade, then force him to take the money; and the only way he can withdraw his own cash from of the bank is to rob it, thus putting the police (indeed, the army) on his trail.
Combine that series of running battles with martinets, clerks and functionaries with the strange satisfaction the characters get from erecting civilization's totems in unlikely places (like a mailbox in the wilderness), and by Act 2 I was thinking Catch-22.
Like Heller's novel, Quantum's adaptation of Paasilinna's work is a eulogy for sanity in a world gone mad. Except, to name just a few differences: Yossarian never consorted with magical-realist forest creatures; never howled for succor, in the midst of depression; nor, as the Miller begins to do here, howled for joy.
The Howling Miller, staged outdoors at the Frick Environmental Center, concludes this week, with four more performances through Sun., Aug. 22 (www.quantumtheatre.com).