There's little surprising in Quantum Theatre taking over an art gallery. The peripatetic company that's performed in a rain-soaked rose garden and commandeered a decommissioned swimming pool won't fret over the polished parquet floors and chandelier-lit, velvet-clad walls of the Frick Art & Historical Center.
But Quantum's latest world-premiere collaboration with British-born, internationally known Dan Jemmett contrasts strikingly with the other two. Dog Face was a carnivalesque eruption in a cavernous (and icy) Lawrenceville warehouse. Last year's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid was raucous postmodern vaudeville staged in the North Side's gloriously seedy Garden Theatre. Both shows were invited to Madrid's prestigious Festival de Otoño.
Now Jemmett and his actors (all but one of whom did Billy) work alongside gilt-framed paintings like Francois Boucher's 18th-century pastoral "A Peasant Boy Fishing" and Rubens' lush "Portrait of Charlotte Marguerite de Montmercy" (1610). In fact, they're acting out a gallery scenario. Burly Rick Kemp plays a docent passionately explicating a painting that depicts a young woman on a swing, pushed by her husband while her lover crouches in the foliage, tantalized by glimpses beneath her flying skirt.
While Desiree Davis, John Fitzgerald Jay and Andrew Hachey vivify this image, Kristen Slaysman, her back to the scene, contemplates an actual painting on the wall. A week before opening night, the scene (still a work-in-progress) is one product of Jemmett's "devising" technique, which uses group improvisation to create a theatrical work from a literary one. The results can productively puzzle even performers.
"It feels weird not to look at what's happening," says Slaysman.
"She's not looking at all," says Jay. "I'm looking, but I'm not seeing anything. He's seeing it all."
"But I'm looking at the ceiling," says Hachey.
"Nobody's looking in the right place," concludes Jemmett.
The show grew from Jemmet's friendship with renowned author and critic John Berger (Ways of Seeing), who one day at his home in the French alps handed Jemmett a then-unpublished story about a museum visitor's enchantment with an elderly female docent. ("To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody can reach in this life to feeling immortal.") Jemmet later performed "The Museum of Desire" himself, but he felt it needed to be done in a gallery, not a theater.
Quantum will present two performances nightly. Each evening's first audience will watch the 40-minute "Museum" and then welcome the second audience. Together they'll hear Jemmet read another short Berger story -- "Flowers in the Corner," about a man and a mysterious painting -- and then Carnegie Mellon music students perform Schubert's Trout Quintet. The evening also includes some Berger sketches and access to the Frick's current show of rare Italian drawings from the Prado.
Come January he'll be in Paris, directing at the legendary Comédie Française, but Jemmett is now Pittsburgh-based. With a Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts fellowship, he's developing a feature film and expanding on his theatrical work with a new performance collective called 404 Strand.
In an interview, Jemmett twice calls Berger's "Museum" story "hermetic." He compares it to "a poem that doesn't really release its secrets easily.
"Itself it's a like a precious artifact," he adds.
Quantum Theatre presents The Museum of Desire Thu., Nov. 6-23. Frick Art & Historical Center, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze. $25-35 ($15 students). 412-394-3353 or www.quantumtheatre.com