No, this isn’t a live-action version of the computer-animated film from 2005. You remember the one, right? With the usual menagerie of cutesy but annoying animals voiced by the likes of Ben Stiller and Chris Rock?
For better or worse, there are no talking animals in Fusion Theatre Company’s production of Madagascar, and the human characters who make appearances in this disturbing show never set foot on the real-world island. J.T. Rogers’ play explores less tangible terrain. His Madagascar is an idea more than a place, an aspiration more than an actual point on the globe.
The story is simple, although it doesn’t seem that way at first. Three different characters visit the same hotel room in Rome at three different periods. Lilian (Laurie Thomas) showed up five years ago. A neurotic, fragile woman who favors her son, Paul, over his twin sister, June (Jacqueline Reid), Lilian tells us she’s been coming to Rome and staying in this same room for years. The history that surrounds the hotel comforts her. On previous visits, she had been eager to force that enthusiasm on her children.
Paul is a major character in the play—maybe the major character—but he never actually makes an appearance. We learn he has disappeared to Madagascar, which in this case is both an exotic fantasyland his mother claims to have discovered and the actual island off the coast of Africa. Paul goes there on a quest to determine the difference between what is true and what is false. We never find out the degree to which he succeeds.
June visits the hotel room in Rome just a few days prior to the present. She’s working as a tour guide, still torturing herself in her spare time over the loss of her twin brother.
The last character in the play is Nathan (Martin Rader), a frumpy economist who had a long-term affair with Lilian. He speaks to the audience from the present, drawn into this complicated family tragedy against his will.
Rogers’ script is difficult to stage, mostly because it isn’t very playish. For one thing, almost zero interaction occurs between the characters. Instead, Lilian, June and Nathan take turns delivering fractured speeches that eventually coalesce into a barebones story explaining much (but not all) of what went wrong with this troubled family.
Every character is a solitary island separated from the rest of human life by vast oceans of darkness and silence.
Partly due to its atypical structure, this is a lonely sort of play. Every character is a solitary island separated from the rest of human life by vast oceans of darkness and silence. There’s also lots of cello in this production, which adds another thick layer of melancholy.
The stark set enhances the isolated ambiance, too. A lone window frame hangs in black space. Two short sets of stairs on each side of the stage lead nowhere. Likewise, the mattress in the middle of it all is stripped of sheets, indicating that whatever happened here is done, and the evidence has already been cleared away.
Madagascar is occasionally funny, but Rogers’ aim isn’t to humor us. Honestly, it’s easier to admire this play for its formal inventiveness than to enjoy it for the usual reasons we enjoy theater. This is because none of the drama between characters actually happens on stage. Consequently, the way these three people are cut off from each other—in time, if not in space—is somewhat alienating.
Still, Rogers braids history, fantasy and deception into a narrative strand that ropes these three severed characters intimately together. Thomas, Reid and Rader rarely talk to each other on stage, but they make us believe their destinies are connected. Puzzling out those connections is what gives the play much of its dark charm.