Stage review

Impeccable 'Madagascar' is more than a mystery


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People love a good mystery, especially with an edge. But the attraction is increased when the edge is more in the telling than in the mystery itself.

That's certainly the fascination of "Madagascar," Quantum Theatre's oddly named three-handed mystery, which because of early response has already been extended an additional week to Feb. 22. (Quantum regulars take note: It's staged in The Carlyle, an opulent Downtown building with heating and bathrooms.)

'Madagascar'
Where: Quantum Theatre at The Carlyle, 306 Fourth Ave. (corner of Wood Street), Downtown.
When: Through Feb. 22; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; also 8 p.m. Feb. 18.
Tickets: $36-$46 (students $18 select performances, book by phone), 412-362-1713 or www.quantumtheatre.com.

This is no police procedural or Sherlockian puzzler, but more in the Pinteresque mode, where characters talk obliquely and the core of the mystery is the dynamics of the relationships -- not just power, love, regret and anything else between two (or among three) characters, but even the more basic relationships of parent, child, lover, friend.

None of these is specified in advance -- we have to work each out for ourselves, although we get key information as the play moves along. The three central characters are Lilian, June and Nathan, played by three actors, each of whom also plays others, usually in passing.

The setting is a balconied room in a hotel above the Spanish Steps in Rome that each of the three main characters occupies in what is for each the present -- for Lilian five years ago, for June a few days ago and for Nathan, now. But each also appears in flashbacks, either their own or others'. The mode is direct address, each speaking mainly in isolation, at the time they were most recently in the room. In their ultimate present, Lilian and Nathan are 60-ish and June about 30.

I'm not going to say more, because the indeterminate nature of the information you gradually glean is the essence of the experience, and saying more would be like giving you the jigsaw puzzle pieces already sorted right side up, which any puzzle fan knows is cheating.

Oh, there's one more thing you'll figure out soon enough: there are two other important characters whom we never see, a husband/father (since deceased) and brother/son about whom, if you're like me, you will develop powerful opinions. And there's one more detail that caused me a lot of trouble: The person June calls Paul and Lilian calls Gideon is the same. (Any echoes of those names are up to you.)

The play highlights a frieze from antiquity of two women with a boy between them -- the Eleusinian Relief of Demeter and Persephone (mother and daughter), the boy variously identified. Add that to the puzzle. The play runs 90 minutes without intermission, so you have to do the thinking on your own, without group consultation.

And pay attention to the brief prologue, where June talks about how people choose to disappear, Lilian about talking your way through a mystery (indeed!) and Nathan, about guilt.

What will strike you first is the set, jointly created by Stephanie Mayer-Staley (with Atticus Adams) and the setting, the lobby of what was once a bank. Three thick columns of Cipollino marble, Ionic order, soar impassively above an impressive double bed of carved and gilded wood, vaguely baroque with maybe a reference to Apollo. It's highly suggestive for a mystery of a family as tangled as in those ancient Greek myths.

Oops, there's another tidbit. Well, that's how the play progresses, clue by clue. If after seeing it you catch me on the street, let's share ideas about some things I just can't figure out. This is a play that keeps on giving.

I'm not sure how substantive it is, though. Intriguing, yes, and a deeply engaging pleasure in performance, but what are we left with beyond the knots still to unsnarl? That families are mysterious? That the heart is an obdurate organ?

There's one suggestion in Nathan's talk of economics, both macro and micro. The latter, as I understand it in simplistic, transactional terms, is the study of why people do things. That sounds almost like a definition of drama. But don't we also ask of a play something macro, something larger?

The production is impeccable, from that set to the careful direction by Sheila McKenna to performances by three of our best actors. Helena Ruoti (Lilian) and Larry John Meyers (Nathan) need no introduction; Melinda Helfrich (June -- a suggestive name in the Persephone context) has acted here enough to need no introduction. All three do as much as they can to help us penetrate their mystery, without giving too much away.

As I may have done.

The title? Something to do with adventures in unknown places.


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