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Quantum Theatre returns to Downtown

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Fabric covers windows on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Wood Street, leaving passers-by wondering what lies within.

The nomadic Quantum Theatre company has designed its next set inside the former lobby of the Union National Bank as it prepares for "Madagascar." The play, directed by Sheila McKenna, will run Friday through Feb. 16.

Quantum Theatre's 'Madagascar'
Where: Lobby of The Carlyle in the old Union National Bank Building, Fourth Avenue, Dowtown.
When: Friday through Feb. 16; 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays. (No late seating)
Tickets: $36-$49; $18 for students on selected dates; or 412-362-1713.

"There's a sense of mystery in the play. We like that the fabric sort of adds to that," said Atticus Adams, assistant scenic designer. "It's covering things in layers, and there are all these layers of what's happening within the play and the characters."

Quantum's performance of J.T. Rogers' ghost story will be the company's first production Downtown since 2009.

The group is always interested in being Downtown, but the play's setting in a hotel room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome called for a "monumental and luxurious" space, according to Karla Boos, artistic director. In the Fourth Avenue Historic District, the old Union National Bank Building, now The Carlyle condos, speaks to Pittsburgh's exciting past.

"The area was the seat of finance and industry in the glamorous age of Pittsburgh," Ms. Boos said. "Building after building is magnificent."

Three marble columns command the room while they reference the classical antiquity of Rome.

"The space is powerful enough to transport you to where the play takes place," Mr. Adams said.

As the play progresses, the audience will "slowly excavate" many secrets belonging to the three characters who visit the same hotel room at different times. Helena Ruoti and Melinda Helfrich portray mother Lilian and daughter June, and Larry John Meyers plays the role of Nathan, a friend of Lilian's husband.

Scenic designer Stephanie Mayer-Staley compared the location to an excavation site because much of it is hidden.

"It is definitely a space that speaks to the play, which is perfect, because the more you have naturally, the less you have to create," Ms. Mayer-Staley said. "Found spaces are a beautiful thing."

Solving some of the problems the space presented led the designers to decisions that benefited the overall design of the set.

With large columns in the center of the room, Ms. Mayer-Staley said she had to work with two separate areas. She decided to keep the audience and stage in one spot, which made it difficult to fit the necessary number of seats but created an emptiness the designers desired.

"It was really important that there was a lot of space to kind of visually evoke this void that the characters float in," Ms. Mayer-Staley said. "This is perfect, because the audience is really close to the action, but then you have all this big space that's not lit a lot."

Inspired by environmental artist Christo -- who is famous for wrapping Paris' Pont Neuf [bridge] and Berlin's Reichstag in fabric and erecting The Gates in New York City's Central Park, among other works -- the designers covered much of the walls with 6,932 square feet of muslin.

The fabric helps to reduce reverberation caused by the lobby's marble surface and muffles sound and light coming from outside. Mr. Adams said they did not want to block out the Downtown atmosphere entirely because of the play's urban setting.

"[The fabric] just lent itself perfectly to create the kind of space we wanted, but at the same time, there was a practical aspect," Mr. Adams said.

The play has a "fascination" with the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome who were tasked with keeping a sacred fire alive. Letting the fire go out or engaging in sexual activity were crimes punishable by death for the Virgins. If sentenced, a woman would be sealed in an underground room with only enough fuel, food and water to live for three or four days, Mr. Adams said.

In order to allude to being underground, the designers did not cover the top of the windows. The audience has a view of the architectural details on buildings surrounding the Carlyle, which creates a subterranean feeling.

This Quantum production "exemplifies multiple things working together in Pittsburgh," including arts and real estate, according to Ms. Boos. Quantum worked with Carlyle developer E.V. Bishoff Co. in order to use the space.

Without a permanent location, the company has the opportunity to work with different community groups each time it moves to a new neighborhood. The Pittsburgh Downtown Community Development Corp. and Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership have both worked with Quantum to connect Downtown residents with the project.

"It takes the good will of many partners to put on a Quantum production," Ms. Boos said.

Sara Payne:

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