Art, music, audience objects of Quantum's 'Museum of Desire'

Stage Review

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"Heard melodies are sweet," Keats wrote, "but those unheard are sweeter."

Take that as one key to "The Museum of Desire," a Quantum Theatre world premiere devised by director Dan Jemmett and his actors that mixes questioning prose, arresting verbal images, articulate actor guides, an actual museum of rare delicacies -- and even live, heard music.

The subject is how we are tantalized, ravished and rendered melancholy by beautiful art and what it reveals and withholds. Five actors take us on an imaginary tour of a great art museum, as evoked by John Berger in his short story/essay, "The Museum of Desire," and then send us on to a live performance of the Schubert "Trout" piano quintet, played by the Carnegie Mellon University Quintet.

'The Museum of Desire'
  • Where: Quantum Theatre at Frick Art & Historical Center, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze.
  • When: Through Nov. 23; Wed.-Sun. 7 and 8 p.m.
  • Tickets: $25-$35 (students $15)
  • More information: or 412-394-335.
  • Preview: Interview with Dan Jemmett.

Some audiences, however, will have this experience in reverse -- music first, then the museum. In either case, the overriding issue is how the pieces speak to each other.

Idiosyncratic is Quantum's middle name, of course, and site specific is its mode. So this enigmatic evening is staged in the very elegant 18th-century room of the Frick Art & Historical Center, a lovely stand-in for London's Wallace Collection, about which Berger wrote.

The "story" of Berger's piece is the experience of the museum and some of its art, including Fragonard's essay in delicate titillation, "The Swing." But the story's larger fascination is a crisp, demure female guide, as much an object of speculation as the art.

In speaking Berger's prose, the actors (Desiree Davis, Andrew Hachey, John Fitzgerald Jay, Rick Kemp and Kristin Slaysman) sometimes just narrate and sometimes embody what they describe. In either case, they absorb our attention at the cost of lessening our focus on Berger's words. Every time I was caught up in an actor's moment, I heard some insight or aphorism slip by without getting its full impact. There's a complicated interplay, suggested by the long pauses in which the actors stop to regard us, as if we were objects in a living museum -- which is just how we have been regarding them.

Quantum provides a key to this mutual mirroring with another, even shorter Berger piece, "Flowers in a Corner," read to us by Jemmett just before the Schubert quintet. "Flowers" is about an early 20th-century canvas on which the paint has flaked off, leaving white dots that become "more arresting than the image."

The speaker decides to retouch it, painstakingly, dot by infinite dot. In the process, he becomes captive to the painter's vision, but it can be realized only through his appropriation of it. Restored, the painting is both his and not his. It is, in other words, like the whole Quantum evening. We appropriate the performance, replacing its stimuli with our own responses, layering them with our personal meanings and understanding.

So don't expect the critic to tell you what this Quantum evening "means," except that it means you are engaged in the mirror image of the search for meaning enacted by the actors and musicians, Berger, Schubert and the artists whose work is described or is actually on the walls all around us.

Jemmett's reading of "Flowers" started this train of thought, carrying me right through the Schubert. I liked having the music last, because it enfolded me in a more sensory experience, leaving me less anxious about meaning than I had been coming out of the play.

By "play," I mean the 45 minute enactment of Berger's text, "The Museum of Desire." But I wouldn't really call it a play. Nor is the evening as a whole. Actually, it is the whole evening that is the true museum of desire. We are in it, both as displays and as connoisseurs, tantalized intellectually and emotionally with story and melody, rhythm and metaphor.

Even as I write, I see that I am reenacting the experience of the evening itself, trying to capture thoughts as shadowy as art. It's like people in a gallery, each having a personal experience, but fooling themselves that they all can possibly be seeing the same painting as it shimmers in the air and imagination between them.

Usually, we get our aesthetic experiences more neatly packaged. At Quantum, they bump into each other, disorienting us. That's what I think it all means.

PG theater critic Christopher Rawson can be reached at 412-263-1666 or .


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