Madagascar is a wild, mysterious experience
A trip to see a play put on by the Quantum Theatre company is not the average theater-going experience. This Pittsburgh-based company finds different locations for each play it presents. “Our patrons think of it as an adventure finding the next venue,” said Stevie Herendeen, director of community relations for Quantum Theatre.
The Carlyle, the venue for the company’s current show, Madagascar, provides a more-than-appropriate backdrop for a story involving characters from a world of wealth and privilege. Artistic director Karla Boos said the location, previously a Union National Bank replete with marble columns and floors, “references the Greek Classical period, a luxurious place known to the world of people of privilege.”
The story centers around Lilian (Helena Ruoti), June (Melinda Helfrich), and Nathan (Larry John Meyers), three people whose stories are interwoven by the mysterious disappearance of Gideon, and whose interactions with him intersect in a certain hotel room in Rome at different times. Lilian is Nathan’s lover and the mother of twins June and Gideon (her favorite child). June, as Gideon’s fraternal twin, shares a special connection with him. Nathan, a friend of the family, was an economist like June and Gideon’s father Arthur, although Nate was not as revered. Lilian, June, and Nathan ponder the events leading up to the disappearance of Gideon in their respective time periods.
In addition to the concurrent time periods of each character, the manner in which the play is told also makes it unique. The audience learns the history of the family and the relationships between characters through a series of anecdotes. The language of the play paints a clear picture of the story without sacrificing its poetic tone.
“The play is very beautifully written, evocative, mysterious,” director Sheila McKenna said. “I wanted to avoid sentimentality but still honor passion. I wanted to respect the language without being too reverent. I like plays that don’t have a neat, tidy package for the director or the audience. I like that this play asks questions about patterns — why this? Why do we choose certain memories to hang on to?”
The play often reveals threads of patterns to unravel mysteries. June and Nathan often reference one of Arthur’s mantras — that if you look closely enough and pay attention, you can find patterns that connect people. This play models that idea perfectly, as it is a series of chosen memories in which viewers can find patterns to understand the story and formulate opinions on family, truth, and punishment. Helfrich, who plays June, said that she was attracted to Madagascar “[by] the complications and fallibility of memory. I was interested in how different people’s memories of the same event don’t quite match up.” Helfrich, a Chatham University and Columbia University graduate who has been working with Quantum Theatre for her entire professional career, said she connected with her character June because “her voice is so clear to me. I can understand her struggle to connect to her mother.”
This production felt the touch of the Tartan — the costume designer, Lizzie Donelan, is a current master’s student in costume design in the College of Fine Arts, and the lighting director, C. Todd Brown, is currently an assistant teaching professor of lighting in the School of Drama. Donelan also worked on costumes for Carnegie Mellon’s productions of The Crucible and Macbett. Brown has also designed the lighting for 17 other Quantum Theatre productions. Though neither Brown nor Donelan attended this performance, their colleagues only had glowing reviews of their abilities.
“Todd is wonderful,” said McKenna, who previously acted in a production for which Brown designed the lighting. “Todd is a master. He has beautiful ideas, and he’s very sensitive. He brought them beautifully to life.”
Helfrich agreed that she enjoyed working with the Carnegie Mellon affiliates. She said, “[Brown and Donelan] were fantastic — so professional. We, the actors, had a whole support team behind us making the production.” She said that connecting with the audience was especially important in such an intimate setting. “I usually find a couple of people whose faces draw me in, but I really try to connect with everybody,” Helfrich said.
According to set designer Stephanie Mayer-Staley, “The location instantly spoke to all of us.” Mayer-Staley especially connected to the former bank because it was where she opened her first checking account. “We loved the antiquity and the architecture,” Mayer-Staley said. However, the cavernous marble venue also presented some problems to the production staff. “The biggest challenge was acoustics because of the marble. We used muslin to dampen the acoustics. I think it adds to the feel of the play — like an excavation site — because as you are watching the play, you’re revealing secrets, digging deeper.”
Madagascar runs through Feb. 16 at The Carlyle in Downtown.