Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Quantum typically makes the most of the sites of its site-specific productions, but the troupe really outdoes itself with the staging for Heiner Müller's play about revolution, betrayal and disillusionment in 19th-century France and Jamaica.
The taken-over locale this time is the Gage Building, an old multi-story brick warehouse in the Strip. Quantum artistic director Karla Boos commandeered the whole first floor, a vast and sepulchural if high-ceilinged space with few enough windows that it's got to be mostly dark even during matinees.
Each of the 90-minute show's eight scenes is played in a different corner of the space, with the audience walking between them. But really the whole first floor has been transformed, from the symbolic tumble of hardback books on the frozen conveyor belt as you enter the building, to the sight lines that afford glimpses of sets you've just visited, or are about to.
The play's first scene, for instance, partakes of a device I especially enjoy: While actors play right before us, some 50 yards "upstage" across the shadowy former shop floor is a spotlit loft done up like a shabbily ornate study. The effect recalls a deep-focus shot in film -- something we seldom get to see in theater (and rarely enough in film these days, for that matter). And the next scene's played out in that very loft.
Other staging highlights include a scene set in a freight elevator. Both its doors are open -- one on each face of the shaft - and half the audience of 100 is seated in front of each, watching both the boxed-in actors and the audience on the other side. The show even incorporates a pallet-jack … pulled by an actor in a huge papiér-mâché mask representing one of the Jamaican slaves our trio of Frenchman have supposedly come to liberate.
Perhaps most cleverly of all, the final scene takes place on the opposite side of that loft from scene 2. We're still staring at its nearly identical mirror image. Only this time we're seated in risers, looking down on the three protagonists and up at the symbolic action in the loft. It brings the play literally full circle, both visually and thematically.
As a whole, The Task is a mixed bag. The cast, led by Larry John Meyers, Tony Bingham and Larry Powell, is terrific, and fully game for all manner of perversion, intellectual badinage and theatrical gamesmanship. But Müller's observations about imperialism, oppression and the vagaries of revolution, if memorably wrought, are scarcely new. ("Traitors have a good time while the people walk in blood.") And some of his Freudian psychologizing feels pretty labored.
Nonetheless, the visuals wrought by Boos, director Jed Allen Harris and perhaps especially scenic designer Narelle Sissons (who teaches at Carnegie Mellon and boasts credits on Broadway and internationally) ensure that you won't soon forget The Task.
The Task continues through Sun., May 9 (www.quantumtheatre.com).
Tags: Program Notes