You may not have heard before of German playwright Heiner Müller or have seen any of his more than 30 stage works, some of which started causing sensations in the 1970s when he was in his 40s. It is possible that you have heard of director Jed Allen Harris, especially locally, given that he’s been part of Pittsburgh theatre equally far back. But many people tend to overlook the work of directors; it’s harder to tell what they have contributed to their productions. Let me try to jog your memory. At CMU in the last few years Harris was responsible for exceptional conceptions in Red Noses by Peter Barnes, in the wonderfully comic Sly Fox by Larry Gelbart, and for a multi-dimensional, highly experimental take on the three plays of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. And just a couple of months ago you could have witnessed his slapsticky version of Gogol’s The Inspector General at CMU. In short he has remarkable theatrical imagination. And he makes that clear again in The Task by Müller, an extraordinarily fascinating experience
Müller’s work has been often described as controversial and certainly this play and Harris’ production for Quantum Theatre can grab you and provoke you. I find it difficult to describe it concisely; so much happens in so many ways and on so many levels. These things you may need to know: It is staged in a vast, now unused industrial space with audiences led on foot through various parts of the work which are set in various parts of the place. At times audiences sit, but people with problems walking should be aware of the necessary on- foot participation. There’s also unmistakable, thorough female and male nudity, although brief, with the actors right up close. Plus there are depictions of graphic cruelty.
Of course, since this is a Quantum Theatre event, experimentation and unconventionality should be expected. But you may need to know that The Task is described as a collage and follows a meandering path, assaulting you in fragments, jumping over time and place, even as the actors beckon you to follow them into shadowy new corners or up and down levels and platforms and around peeling walls. This somber, ugly setting fits the piece like a well-worn, grimy workman’s glove and director Harris makes the most of every nuance you could infer. The foundation of the script’s structure deals with events during the French Revolution, focusing on three citizens from the center of that violent, constantly shifting political earthquake. They have been sent to one of the colonies of their British enemies, Jamaica, to foment rebellion among black slaves. Müller uses that to comment on slavery in many forms and in many different times, to comment on how ever-changing political power always squashes the goals of liberty, equality and fraternity. That is the essence.
Meanwhile Harris could make you could feel as if you have become part of a Paris mob during the Revolution striding the shifting soil of patriotic fervor. That could turn perilous if you don’t watch your step. Yes, you become part of it. You could likewise feel as if in a museum where your participation consists of moving from display to display, coming up with your own meanings for what you see, and in this case, hear. And, at times, too, you will hear that Müller has written eloquent, trenchant dialogue, or so it seems in Carl Weber’s translations
Everyone in the seven member acting ensemble makes it all compellingly clear and meaningful. But in one scene Larry John Meyers especially stands our in a brilliant, virtuosic interpretation whose heat glows in the darkness.
This production and what director Jed Allen Harris has made of it again substantiates how Quantum Theatre can come up with rare and remarkable experiences to amaze and astonish you.
You don’t have much time left to be part of The Task. It’s at The Gage Building in The Strip District though next Sunday. More information is at www.quantumtheatre.com and 412/394-3353