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Review: 'Prussia: 1866' injects fun and farce into Nietzsche

| Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Jeff Swensen
Laura Lee Brautigam and Philip Winters in a scene from 'Prussia: 1866' at the The Rep, Point Park University’s professional theater company

Farces are often a vehicle for comedy about men behaving badly, then racing around trying to cover their tracks.

So, “Prussia: 1866,” a production by The Rep, Point Park University's professional theater company, is a welcome novelty — a farce that puts women in the driver's seat.

The action, antics and silliness are set on a single day in Prussia in 1866 and revolve around an affair a young wife is having with a 22-year-old student of her much-older husband.

The student will go on to become well-known, oft-quoted philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

But before you let that discourage you from going to see the play, be advised that playwright Gab Cody posts a disclaimer in the program: “Friedrich Nietzsche was 22 in 1866. He was living in Prussia. The rest is fiction.”

Cody uses the Nietzsche connection to insert some of the philosopher's thoughts and words into the proceedings. But it's subtle enough not to be a barrier; the play would bubble on just as pleasantly if Fritz were a student of mathematics or an apprentice plumber.

Drew Palajsa's Fritz, Philip Winters' cuckolded husband Heinrich Von Klamp and Sam Turich's unnamed American Delegate operate at the mercy and machinations of the play's very strong women.

Heinrich is so vision-impaired he fails to notice the completely naked Fritz, then mistakes him for a coat tree when he arrives home unexpectedly.

But Heinrich is virtually blind to much of what's happening, whether or not he's wearing his glasses.

The play is thoughtful as well as intermittently humorous and, on occasions, outrageously funny.

It more closely resembles a Moliere comedy of manners than a Ray Cooney farce.

Laura Lee Brautigam's young and coquettish Mariska Von Klamp keeps Fritz and Heinrich dancing to her whims.

It's clear that Heinrich's assistant Rosemary, a clear-headed feminist played by Cody, is the real brains behind Heinrich's work as a novelist and diplomat.

She and Turich's American Delegate have what's arguably the show's best scene as they conduct a parallel conversation in English while Rosemary is simultaneously pretending to translate for the Delegate and the German-speaking Heinrich.

Even Karoline, the 19-year-old, good-girl maid (played by Hayley Nielsen), knows how to manage people without appearing to.

The play starts slow, partially because director Kim Martin takes pains to make sure circumstances and relationships are firmly established.

It isn't until Mary Rawson enters in the role of the thunderously commanding and pivotal matriarch Griselda Eberstark that things take off. Rawson knows just how to propel the action forward and how to land a tart comment for full effect.

The tempo quickens, the stakes rise and energy soars.

Scenic designer Stephanie Mayer-Staley solves myriad technical challenges in getting “Prussia: 1866” to fit and function in the Rauh Theatre — most notably, turning a pair of sliding doors into an entertaining element. Cathleen Crocker-Perry supplies attractive and creative costumes that support period and character.

While Cody is clear that her Nietzsche character is almost entirely her own creation, it's fun to think of how the serious writer, philosopher and thinker's later views on religion, morality and culture might have been formed, in part, during a youthful tryst in a Prussian parlor.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808, acarter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.

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