BWW Reviews: MADAGASCAR at Quantum Theatre
Rest assured, theatre fans: J.T. Rogers's fascinating, genre-busting play at the Quantum Theatre has nothing to do with the funny-animal franchise. The titular nation is not even the setting of the play, which takes place within a single Roman hotel room overlooking the Spanish Steps at three different points in time. Rather, it serves as a distant, exotic location with a mysterious pull on the three American travelers who each find themselves in the hotel room. Naturally, the seemingly misleading title is only the start of the mysteries within Madagascar, which director Sheila McKenna has staged in the cavernous ballroom of the Carlyle Condominium.
To say too much about the plot of Madagascar would spoil the show. Madagascar is a ghost story, a memory play and a mystery all at once, but the central mystery is not "whodunnit," but "what was done, and to who." Five years ago, American wife and mother Lilian traveled to the hotel room where the play takes place, with tour guide June booking the room a few days before the present, and economist Nathan occupying the room at present. These three figures haunt the room like ghosts, not seeing each other but revealing the unexpected ways their paths cross through a series of monologues. As the plot unwinds, the presence of two additional characters provides an additional ghostly effect, as these figures never appear onstage but link the three travelers together even more closely than they may realize. As their stories unfold, shared themes, concepts, ideas and philosophies begin to emerge- the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome, the need and desire for self-punishment, recurring phrases like "some things cannot be looked at" and a mysterious postcard- painting a picture bigger than any of their own stories.
The split timelines make the monologue-based structure a necessity, so apart from moments in which they appear in flashbacks or act as "ensemble," the three characters never interact with each other. Although all three actors acquit themselves gamely within this unusual conceit, Larry John Meyers shines as Nathan, finding unexpected depths of humor and tragedy within the character of a man who can never find the right words to express his feelings in the moment. As June, Melinda Helfrich captures the frustration of knowing more than you can let on, and Helena Ruoti provides early moments of humor as she delivers Lilian's arch, disaffected musings.
While the scenic design by Stephanie Mayer-Staley with Atticus S. Adams is interesting, as it transforms the ballroom into a cavelike enclosure, the use of abstracted, ghostly furniture and set pieces in the far background of the set was confusing, as these pieces are not mentioned and do not seem to exist within the play's world. Additionally, the haunting theme music by sound composer Elizabeth Atkinson was used in the first half-hour to dictate transitions between timelines, but its gradual disappearance towards the middle of the play left a period of confusion as to when characters were speaking from their own time and when they were appearing in the flashbacks of others.
Madagascar is not an easy play. It demands rapt attention and leaves most questions unanswered. But those seeking intellectual stimulation with their entertainment will certainly find what they seek in a small hotel room in Rome... or on the ground floor of the Carlyle Condominiums.