Nomadic Quantum Theater explores unconventional spaces

At the corner of Fourth Avenue and Wood Street, in a large room with grand marble columns and a high ceiling, a small band of lighting and sound technicians, actors and their director prepare for the opening night of Quantum Theatre’s latest play, “Madagascar,” which will debut on Jan. 31.

 “Madagascar” was originally written in 2004 by popular playwright J.T. Rogers, known for plays such as “The Overwhelming” (2004) and “Blood and Gifts” (2010). His plays require a great deal of audience engagement, and “Madagascar” is no exception. The play presents a mystery, and it’s up to the viewers to figure it out.

The play starts and ends in one location: a hotel room in Rome above the Spanish Steps.

“It’s very beautifully written. I find each character intriguing, charming, touching and sad,” said Sheila McKenna, the director of “Madagascar” and a theater professor at Point Park University.

“The play also only has three characters, which makes it very intimate,” McKenna said.

“I’ve worked with small casts before, but this is my first monologue play as the primary structure of the story,” McKenna said.

In the close space of the theater, the three characters speak directly to the audience as everyone discovers what happened. What the audience comes to understand is that the characters are in this room all at once, but during different periods in time.

“The time periods for these characters are right now, three days ago and five years ago,” said Karla Boos, the artistic director and founder of Quantum Theatre, who has written and directed plays over the past 22 years.

According to Boos and McKenna, it’s a tricky process to make these characters speak at the same time, but it creates a unique narrative.

“It’s a fun kind of puzzle to try and figure out,” McKenna said.

As for their location, Quantum Theatre’s office is on Highland Avenue, but they don’t have their own theater space.

“Usually a set designer works in a conventional theater,” Steffi Mayer, one of two set designers for “Madagascar,” said. “With Quantum it’s always site-specific. We look for spaces that jive with the play, itself.”

 As a nomadic theater troupe, Quantum is always looking for the right location for a particular play. Boos and Mayer search for spaces in Pittsburgh that fit the play, whether it’s inside or outside. This strategy creates a distinctive atmosphere and new challenges every time. For “Madagascar,” it took half a year to find the right location.

“I just believe that’s the right circumstance for artists,” Boos said. “Every play that Quantum does is very different. That challenge is what excites us.”

The grand size of The Carlyle in downtown Pittsburgh provided the perfect place for a story that relies so much on one particular space, and it creates a Roman look and feel.

“We wanted to reference antiquity because the main character, Lilian, is obsessed with Rome,” Boos said.

One of the main questions when choosing a location is figuring out how to actually make it work. The design of the set was one of the major tasks assigned to Mayer.

“Acoustics are the biggest challenge here. We installed fabrics to dampen the sound,” Mayer said.

Around the theater, large brown curtains cover most of the walls, hiding the majority of what once was an old national bank.

“Shrouding really spoke to me, as the designer, because of the references to antiquity. There’s a lot hidden in the space, and your imagination creates what’s behind it,” Mayer said.

Mayer described the room as subterranean and cave-like.

On the center stage of the hotel room, the main prop is a large Rococo bed that the designers found in an antique store. The curtained walls along the perimeter enclose the space, confining the audience and actors. This constraint further emphasizes the isolation that the characters feel.

As the opening night of “Madagascar” draws nearer, anticipation and excitement grow deeper for cast and crew alike.

“Some of the primary themes in the play are about forgiveness and things we didn’t do in life,” McKenna said. “The play asks interesting life questions.”