MICHEL DE GHELDERODE'S Pantaleize dramatizes the dehumanizing and destructive aspects of a violent political revolution. The play, which first appeared in 1929, was molded by the current chaotic European political scene. Ministerial crises wracked de Ghelderode's France on an average of every three months, and militant demonstrators armed with black flags and utopian rhetoric called for the decapitation of all cabinet ministers and army officers. In the 1920's officials did not answer demonstrators with the granting of civilian review boards but with machine gun fire and wholesale executions. The playwright could not conceive of the revolutionaries as alleviating social conditions in any way, but only as adding more senseless suffering.
Pantagleize, subtitled "A Farce to Make You Sad," gets its name from the central character, a half-philosopher, half-clown unwittingly involved with a cell of revolutionaries who take him for their leader. Pantagleize falls in love with a young girl who is one of the leaders of the revolution, but she is killed by the police. Eventually the revolutionaries are all caught and executed. Pantagleize too is shot: he dies like a marionette, uncomplaining, manipulated to the very end by forces he never could understand.
Gloomy isn't it? But de Ghelderode's gleefully ironic language and vibrant, Dickensian characters make Pantagleize a powerful play no matter which side of the barricades you stand on. Gordon Ferguson's Chaplinesque portrayal of Pantagleize, probably de Ghelderode's finest creation, contributes a giant share to making Dunster House's production a rousing and boisterous, though imperfect, success.
Pantagleize is a misfit: a tender, loving man in a brutal, frenzied world. He has a heart and a mind, but nothing turns out right. He is a schlemiel, but a grand one. Ferguson, a sometimes resident of Cambridge, subtly titillates the audience every time he appears. He swaggers, he prances, he's an imbecile.
ONE DIFFICULTY with the production is that Pantagleize does have a definite element of diffuseness and irrationality in its organization. This is due to the device of viewing the play's events through Pantagleize's beknighted consciousness. But Judy Ebenstein's direction, while excellent with the major characters, does little to pull the many scenes and actors together.
Another problem is the revolutionaries' lack of enthusiasm. In one scene, as the revolutionaries go off to fight, they exit with inspirational mottos ("Long live the revolution," etc.), but they speak their lines so insipidly that you'd think they were on their way to an Advocate meeting.
One striking revolutionary, however, is John Paul Russo, who plays the role of an intellectual doomed for his beliefs in a repressive society with impressive dignity.
The last scenes are the best. The splendidly terrifying generalissimo is trying the revolutionaries for their assorted crimes. The revolutionaries' state-appointed lawyer, done very amusingly by Ken Pauker, argues for them with little success or enthusiasm. The play works so well here because all the characters are involved in the same activity, the trial, and all are, finally, very loose. In the epilogue Pantagleize roams on a darkened stage, amid more corpses than there are at the end of Hamlet, looking for an imaginary exit. Here is de Ghelderode's metaphor for modern existence: we are all dying in a trap without even knowing why. Miss Ebenstein's robust direction and Gordon Ferguson's fine acting wring every possible drop of pain from the jolting final scene.