a theatre, film & pop culture review
Note: My personal rankings are listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite, while predictions for the actual winners will be in orange.
Ruminating on this particular category, I realized how bored I’ve become with über-realistic design, which is why Todd Rosenthal’s constantly rotating set for The Motherf**cker with the Hat is at the bottom of my list. Set in three different New York City apartments, sofas constantly rotate 180 degrees from beneath the stage as the set twirls to reveal the next painstakingly detailed location — you can tell that this is the same Tony Award-winning designer (and director) of the grandiose August: Osage County. Above it all is the New York City skyline, presumably present to “open up” the play and make it feel a little less claustrophobic: these characters are addicts — of drugs, of each other — and no matter how hard they strive to liberate themselves from their habits and relationships, they’re stuck. And the set reflects that caged feeling — full of busyness that distracts from the real issues.
On the realism scale, Jerusalem is the next in line, but Ultz’s single set is less tiresome. Set in rural southwestern England, Ultz (who also designed the chintzy costumes) smartly suggests the Arcadian setting — keeping the woods tucked off to the side and upstage — allowing Mr. Rylance an open, unfettered playground to strut and stagger across, while still suggesting the Into-the-Woods-possibility of sinister giants hiding just ’round the corner from the trailer park.
Now, I’m cheating a bit, as I only saw The Merchant of Venice in the park, but by all accounts, Daniel Sullivan’s site-specific outdoor production transferred to the proscenium stage of the Broadhurst Theatre without losing any steam or theatrical magic. On an otherwise empty stage, Mark Wendland’s rotating wrought-iron puzzle-piece set was pushed and pulled into different configurations to suggest the various locales — Shylock’s office, a stock exchange, the final courtroom. Grand in size and evocative in simplicity, Wendland’s (Tony Award-winning designer of Next to Normal) design smartly directed our focus to the performers and the Bard’s words.
While it may be difficult to pinpoint what specifically constitutes the “set design” in War Horse, it’s not hard to predict that this gorgeous production is going to take home most — if not all — of the design awards. Rae Smith has already won a special Drama Desk Award for “thrilling stagecraft” for her contributions of sets, drawings and costumes for the WWI drama, and I’d be shocked if she didn’t nab the Tony as well for her inspired collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company (which already won a special Tony Award for its extraordinary efforts).