“Vainglorious.” Now there’s a word you don’t hear much anymore, although it seems useful enough for our times, with its denotation of the proud and boastful. Applied Mechanics, a theatre collective based in Philadelphia, chose the evocative term for the title of its 2012 show about the Napoleonic era. Rebecca Wright, the director of Vainglorious, describes it as “a living landscape of epic proportions,” something more like “movement opera” than conventional theatre. Applied Mechanics will reprise the production April 9–13 as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA to its friends) at the Christ Church Neighborhood House.
With a cast of 26, and spanning 20 years of European history, the hour-long piece focuses on five iconic figures, and the audience is free to follow the characters who interest them. Want to see Napoleon and Josephine’s marital spats? Want to see Beethoven discover he’s going deaf? How about author Madame de Stael wheeling diplomat Talleyrand around while he invents political strategy? The program comes with a hand-drawn map on the back to guide you through space and time. In this year’s version there are five actors playing Talleyrand, and the casting of Napoleon (Mary Tuomanen) and Josephine (John Jarboe) is gender-reversed.
Company member Thomas Choinacky (who plays Beethoven) describes the ensemble-devised production’s first rehearsal like this: “The day culminated in a unique version of ‘capture the flag.’ I remember my team (Team Beethoven) losing our flag within the first minute of the game and spending the rest of the time bartering with Team Talleyrand, who kept offering us candy, and surprisingly finding solace in Napoleon and his team. It was an exciting start to what became the epic of our show. Nothing became scriptworthy on that first day, but it built the relationships that led to our characters interacting onstage.”
Eventually each team developed its own gestural language and its own culture and offered Wright contributions to the script, which she, as overseer, finalized. Applied Mechanics has created eight shows since its start in 2008, and this is always its process. In addition, everybody eats a home-cooked meal together after every rehearsal.
As to why the company chose to explore the Napoleonic era, Wright offers two explanations; it started with an ensemble member (there are eight in the core company) who had lived in Paris and “has a sweet tooth for Napoleon.” But more to the larger point is the connection between “celebrity and the civic” in an era when fame got you far, and when an upstart citizen became enormously powerful and eventually ruled much of the world.