Quantum Theatre is in its 20th season -- rare enough for an independent, year-round professional theater company. And artistic director Karla Boos, who founded Quantum, shows no sign of compromising her idiosyncratic vision, complete with custom-built, site-specific theater spaces in unlikely locations.
Quantum's latest season-opener, The Howling Miller, sprang from a newly translated version of the eponymous 1981 Finnish novel, about a village miller named Gunnar Huttunen. He's an outcast who howls like a wolf, and whose increasingly bizarre behavior gets him confined (briefly) in an asylum.
"I'm attracted to things that are both dark and funny," says Boos. The internationally known novelist, Arto Paasilinna, set the darkly comic story in Finland's rural north, in the 1950s. Themes include isolation, mental illness and the traumas of World War II.
The novel "seemed impossible to make into a play," says Boos' longtime friend Peter Duschenes, the Ottawa-based theater artist she asked to help adapt the work for the stage. "But that's what's interesting about working with Karla."
Duschenes and Boos met in the 1980s, as grad students at California Institute of the Arts; Duschenes has acted in Quantum shows including Knives in Hens and Richard II. Here, they sought to recapture Paasilinna's tone, even though scripts are mostly dialogue and the book has little.
Their three dozen scenes are mostly short, some played simultaneously. The language combines deadpan humor ("It's not right that a grown man should be out barking with the dogs," notes one villager) with such surreal touches as animals with carpentry skills, and a talking painting of Jesus.
Meanwhile, a stage setting to represent everything from village to wilderness was literally cut from the brush of Frick Park: With permission from Pittsburgh Citiparks, Quantum cleared the vegetation from a treeless patch of hillside adjacent to the long-shuttered Frick Environmental Center.
With terraces dug to accommodate risers, the natural amphitheater is surrounded by hemlock, mountain laurel, sumac and one big oak. The Environmental Center itself, with its weathered wooden siding, invokes the story's defunct mill. And set designer Tony Ferrieri's raw wooden stage (which leaves a poke-hole for a single slender ash tree) is a multi-level wonder, its story-high catwalk reached by a ramp, a half-spiral stair and a ladder. Meanwhile, the wings melt into the brush, with trails leading up out of (and down into) the woods.
The miller Huttunen is portrayed by Tristan Farmer, the tall and rangy Carnegie Mellon grad who played the violence-prone pitcher in barebones productions' Take Me Out (2009). Duschenes, who's directing, says Farmer gives a highly physical, even acrobatic performance on Ferrieri's set: "He's all over the place. It's like a jungle gym."
The cast of seven (plus a dog) includes Melinda Helfrich as "Lapland 4-H Agricultural Advisor Sanelma Käyrämö" (who persuades Huttunen to grow vegetables).
As with such Quantum productions as The Crucible, the outdoor setting lets nightfall color the atmosphere. Audiences might also spot the Environmental Center's own antique millstone -- another seeming talisman for a show that already suggests a fable. "How the wolf got his howl," Duschenes says you might call it.
Quantum Theatre presents The Howling Miller Thu., July 29-Aug. 22. Frick Environmental Center, 2005 Beechwood Blvd., Squirrel Hill. $16-45. 1-888-718-4253 or www.quantumtheatre.com