a theatre, film & pop culture review
As already discussed here, the creative team behind Red is the most cohesive and inspiring of this Broadway season, and Christopher Oram’s scenic design is no exception. His aesthetic — also seen in this season’s Hamlet, as well 2007’s Frost/Nixon — is one of carefully calculated spareness, full of open space that allows for characters’ free and flexible movement. In Red, the design is so spare as to practically erase any pretense of design altogether: the theatre’s bare walls and backstage area have been exposed to create a deep, wide space that reaches as high as the John Golden’s ceiling’s flyspace allows. The “lack” of design — or rather, the lack of clutter, of barriers — implies the vastness of Rothko’s art, ideas, and his impact on the Expressionist movement. By placing Alfred Molina’s small (comparably speaking) frame in the midst of this open, seemingly unending sea of space, Oram’s design reveals how immaterial the man-artist is in respect to the greatness of the Idea, and the stage is beautifully set for Rothko’s self-realization.
Alexander Dodge’s work on the otherwise abysmal production of Noel Coward’s gleefully snarky comedy, Present Laughter, is as charming and flamboyant as the playwright himself, incorporating a sparking chandelier, lavish leather lounges and fur-printed and gold-plated everything else. Fence‘s realistic 1950s yard and house-front could have used a bit more of the symbolic and titular fence, but Santo Loquasto (also responsible for the scenic designs of this season’s Race and Collected Stories, as well as the controversial costume design of Ragtime discussed here) provides the necessary feelings of claustrophobia and limitations that Troy Mason increasingly impresses on both himself and his family throughout the course of the show. As for The Royal Family (seen to the right), John Lee Beatty’s design looks fittingly lovely and realistic for the 19th century home of the lengendary Barrymore family of actors, but alas, having not seen the production, I cannot provide further commentary.
As much as the constant flashing and color-changing of the lighting designs of Fela! and American Idiot worked to a busy level of distraction, the strikingly colorful (or striking lack of color, as with American Idiot’s black-and-white newspapered walls), multimedia-infused, multi-tiered sets worked to the advantage of each production. American Idiot‘s use of multiple television screens confronting the audience with “current” events and its constant declarations of disillusioned youth aesthetically fit the angry Gen X cast of characters. Idiot would have benefitted, however, from taking a cue from Fela! which extended its vibrant set (platforms, signs, video screens) into the house. From the moment the audience enters the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, they’re ushered into a Nigerian club with all its music, video, and dancers already at play, and this successful break of the fourth wall is largely due to Draghici’s designing with the audience as character in mind. In La Cage aux Folles, Tim Shortall’s simply-designed drag club smartly leaves all the fabulousness to the performers employed therein, and all of the other fine, perfectly French sets similarly made way for the attention-grabbing performances of the cast.
Then of course there’s Ragtime. Countless phrases can be used to describe the highly historical, lushly scored musical about the triumphs and struggles of a country coming into its own, but “simplicity of design” should not be one of them. Ragtime is first and foremost a spectacle. To be sure, it believes itself to be highbrow spectacle, but regardless, it is a show of tremendous girth. Yet Derek McLane pares down what was once (in its original Broadway production) an impressively massive and visually rich show to a bare, metallic scenic outline of our nation’s history. Instead of a true-blue Henry Ford rolling majestically onto the stage, we get a puttering skeletal outline with wheels. Even the piano — the central image of a show named after a culturally significant musical genre — is a hollowed-out prop, and so becomes a hollow symbol in the midst of this misguided design impulse. What McLane and director Marcia Milgrom Dodge didn’t understand is that by skimping on the scenery, they were not highlighting the strengths of Ragtime; rather, they were drawing focus to its unforgivable flaws: criminally underdeveloped characters and an alarmingly narrow view of a nation’s adolescence.