In Gab Cody’s new play Prussia:1866 Mariska von Klamp (Laura Lee Brautigam), the young wife of the older novelist and statesman Heinrich von Klamp (the marvelously muttonchopped Philip Winters) is having an affair with Heinrich’s young private student Fritz (Friedrich Nietszche, that is! played by Drew Palajsa), whom Heinrich believes is in love with his assistant Rosemary (Gab Cody), a bluestocking (well, actually, blue-bloomers) feminist who has hitched her hopes for women’s advancement on Heinrich’s influence in a future united Germany. Rosemary, whose ideas of women’s advancement extends to a rejection of marriage – which she sees as a state of enslavement for women – is in fact torn between her attachment to Heinrich and a budding romance with an American Delegate (Sam Turich), who wants to bring her to America to help lead the women’s movement there. In an effort to get Mariska to leave her husband, Fritz pretends to woo Rosemary, which rouses Heinrich’s jealousy, which later makes the American Delegate suspicious and … sound confusing? Throw in a pious maid (Hayley Nielsen) and a long lost Viennese poetess (Mary Rawson) and you’ve got all the ingredients for a lovely confection of a farce.
Prussia: 1866 touches on some serious issues – early feminism, religiously grounded antipathies, budding German nationalism, the opposition of rational thinking and sensual appetites, and, in passing, some sort of Nietszchean nihilism – but for the most part it just revels in Dionysian silliness. Kim Martin has directed her comically gifted cast in an energetic production that hums along for the most part like a well-oiled machine, with doors flying open and slamming shut at precisely the speed and frequency the genre demands. Cody’s characters are sharply delineated, and she gives them wonderful moments of both physical slapstick and verbal wit, all of which the cast pulls off with virtuosity and flair. The play’s rhythm is quite delightful, too, building in the second act to an almost orgiastic frenzy until the bell for breakfast throws cold water on these sober Germans’ passions.
The production is skillfully executed, and enormous fun, but the play could use a little continued reworking. Its central and most serious conflict resides in Rosemary, whose ambitions for women’s equality and advancement are at odds with her lustful feelings toward the American who has made seducing her part of his diplomatic mission. The setup is familiar, and we expect her to give up her politics and dreams for love (not only because the genre demands a tidy ending in the form of neatly paired, age-appropriate coupledoms, but also because we’ve all seen that movie with Katherine Hepburn or Sandra Bullock). Cody seems to want to offer a different ending to this familiar (and not-so-feminist) scenario, but the somewhat muddled ending of the play makes it difficult to parse what, precisely, her Rosemary really wanted – and really got – in the end. That aside, Cody possesses one of the finest comic sensibilities in the Pittsburgh theater scene – if you missed her Alchemist’s Lab last year you really missed out! – and Prussia:1866 demonstrates her comic genius in high form.