Features NYCNYC Features Published 7 July 2019

A Contemplation of Design

Our critics share their thoughts and feelings about theater design.

Exeunt Staff

As the meltdown over the removal of the Les Miserables revolve has taught us, audiences care about design (and possibly they also hold onto the past a little too tightly).  

Far too often theater design does not get the attention it deserves in criticism. To rectify this imbalance, we thought it was time to bring attention to the design and designers who deserve better and maybe also make a little room for our rants about design too.  

David Zinn’s set design of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Lane Williamson: I’m an acolyte of the designer David Zinn. His Tony-winning set for Spongebob Squarepants enveloped the Palace Theatre in an underwater mélange of household objects and his sumptuous townhouse for the revival of Present Laughter allowed the ostentation of the lead character’s mind to extend across his living space. Both were impressive in their own right, but it’s not Zinn’s large-scale designs that occupy my daily brain space. The thing I love about David Zinn is how he finds beauty in the ordinary. The Flick’s crumbling movie house with stained ceiling tiles and creaky seats was an accurate representation of the time and place, but, like the play, is also a love letter to it. The painstaking recreation of these dingy details transports the audience to their own shitty cinema, to hours spent in the dark with a too-loud air conditioner.

David Zinn's set design of The Flick (Photo: Joan Marcus)

David Zinn’s set design of The Flick (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Zinn’s set for The Humans captured that empty-apartment-blank-canvas feel and then turned that blank space into a landscape of psychological terror. The huge trap doors in the floor of his Fun Home set on Broadway (the second of three designs Zinn did for this production) became tools to conjure and remove the past, which, to me, is what Zinn’s designs do the best. His work is always a gateway to memory. By connecting our own memories to the stories on stage, the whole thing becomes more connected and alive. It’s not necessarily realism, but it’s also not purely fantasy. It’s in the liminal space between the two, an ethereal middle ground where all theatre should live. 

David Zinn’s costume design, Scott Pask’s set design. Airline Highway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I need to note that Zinn is also a costume designer and created some of the most character-specific work I have ever seen for Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway in 2015. D’Amour’s play concerns the residents at a run down motel in New Orleans and Zinn’s costumes were incredibly attuned to economic class, social status, and the interpersonal dynamics within the play. The actors wore these ragged t-shirts, short-shorts, and Mardi Gras beads like their lives depended on them – and they did. Even when working with another scenic designer, in that case Scott Pask, Zinn populates the world with garments highly attuned to the space around them.

Nicole Serratore: I have intense feelings towards certain theater set walls. Some designed walls I love and want to write them love letters because they are used to great effect or the texture and design works so perfectly within the vision of the show. Others I would punch in the face if that wall had a face for being dumb, pointless, or distracting. I’m not sure I can truly rank all my favorite walls, but here are 5 spectacular theater wall examples from productions in New York: 

  • Three Tall Women (Broadway): The apex of dramaturgically kickass theater walls. In Joe Mantello’s Broadway production, the shift between the two acts of this play used Miriam Buether’s set to create the play’s memory play-netherworld space.  Buether constructed a transparent wall which divides the space and essentially the world. A mirror at the back of the set reflects the audience and the action. In the foreground, the actors playing the three physicalized memories of the woman’s past congregate while sitting vigil for her failing body just across the wall in the same room. The physical self and the spiritual self are separated by this perceptible divide which may be a simple visual but what a huge chasm it crosses.  Whenever I think about how sets can speak for a play, this design comes to mind.  
Miriam Buether's set model Three Tall Women (Photo: Tony Awards)

Miriam Buether’s set model for Three Tall Women (Photo: Tony Awards)

  • An Octoroon (Soho Rep): Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play has its pick of shocking moments. But when the large white wall in Mimi Lien’s set fell towards us it was like a bolt of electricity crackled through the room. It may have been cotton balls flying into our faces from the thrust of the walls demise but they stung with utter surprise. More tricks would be in store in the play  but this set a tone for the unexpected. We could not trust anything was stable in this space.    
  • The Normal Heart (Broadway): David Rockwell’s white carved walls did not need to shout, since Larry Kramer’s famous AIDS play raises its voice on its own quite well.  But in the texture of those simple walls were words that howled with meaning for the history of the AIDS crisis. “Patient Zero,” “our silence,” “Gay Men’s Health Crisis,” “Mayor Koch”–each of these a meaningful touchstone. The phrases and sentences on those walls juxtaposed the reported timeline of casualties against the poisonous political apathy of those years.  Names of the dead were then projected on top of that. The walls provided what was reported and what was lived, pressing up against one another through visual storytelling.
David Rockwell The Normal Heart (Photo: The Rockwell Group)

David Rockwell’s set design, The Normal Heart. (Photo: The Rockwell Group)

  • The Maids (Red Bull Theater): A 4-wall set is hard to pull-off effectively but Dane Laffrey’s intimate red-walled box allowed the audience to peer in, peeping Tom-style from the sides of this set box. This served the sexual, playful nature of Jean Genet’s play and made us all acutely aware of our presence and our gaze. With deep crimson brocade walls and mirrors, the identity games of the maids played out before us as we watched them, while the other audience members watched them and us.
The Maids. Set deisng Dane Laffrey. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

The Maids. Set design by Dane Laffrey. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

  • Ghosts (BAM): The corroded, layered glass walls of Tim Hatley’s set for Richard Eyre’s production of this Ibsen play set such a striking mood and space for the story.  I like design that toys with presence and absence through layering this way (see also Hildegarde Bechtler’s incredible set of frosted and clear glass walls for Robert Icke’s London production of Hamlet).  Mixing foggy transparency, antiqued mirrors, and a reflective black floor at times we can see beyond the room at the foreground and other times it’s a world beyond our clear reach. Mostly, it makes it impossible for the characters to escape their tragic fates sealed inside this haunting glass mausoleum. 
Tim Hatley's set for Ghosts. (Photo: Hugh Gelndinning)

Tim Hatley’s set for Ghosts. (Photo: Hugh Glendinning)

Loren Noveck: A pet peeve: Every time I see a door in a frame on a set, I shudder a little internally, because I fear that the main reason to put a door in a frame (especially on an otherwise not slavishly literal set) is that someone will need to slam it. And nothing breaks the spell of suspended disbelief for me quite like a flimsy hollow-core door thudding gently against a freestanding door frame. I know it’s more expensive and harder and heavier to do it right, but if you must slam, either use a solid wood door, build a sound cue, or find another way to convey the gravity of the exit. 

I thought the set of the recent Curse of the Starving Class revival was a little bit of a one-trick pony–a very good trick, but still–but they did the door right.

Cherise Boothe, Nikiya Mathis, and Heather Alicia Simms in Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine by Lynn Nottage and directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. (Photo: Monique Carboni)

Costumes by Montana Levi Blanco in Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine (Photo: Monique Carboni)

A thing I love: I used to think I was fairly indifferent to costume design–if the actors were not naked, I was probably going to be fine with it. And then I discovered Montana Levi Blanco (particularly in Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation) and realized how very very much even the tiniest details can tell you about a character. And it’s not just how good Blanco’s work is (though it really, really is)–I’m noticing costumes much more concretely everywhere now that the light bulb in my head is on.

Alison Walls: Two of my favorite set designs were for Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ shows and stem from quite different aesthetics. 

Clint Ramos’s set for Appropriate at Signature Theatre was a glorious display of clutter in a once prosperous plantation mansion that stays within the realm of realism, eliciting the same kind of horrified glee as an episode of Hoarders, while also giving expression to the genealogical, historical, and metaphorical detritus cramming the patriarchal home.

Appropriate. Set design by Clint Ramos. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Appropriate. Set design by Clint Ramos. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Mimi Lien’s set for An Octoroon at Soho Rep, enhanced by Matt Frey’s bright lighting design is strikingly crisp, bold, and metatheatrical.

Metatheatricality is, of course, inherent to Jacobs-Jenkins’ adaptation of the 19th century Boucicault melodrama, The Octoroon, and the wall-size lynching photograph that the “playwright” BJJ explains replaces the traditional “sensation scene” is an intense, drawn-out, and grueling provocation of sensation, yes, but mainly emotion. The photo is, in some ways, a red herring for the more strictly sensational moment when the back wall drops, projecting the masses of cotton balls that fill the stage out into the audience with a blast of air. It is a rare moment of true astonishment—at once delightful and shocking—startling the audience out of their passive contemplation and into their bodies.

So, glorious clutter on the one hand and spectacular sparseness on the other. Both go for maximum impact but are fully grounded in the meaning of each play (I wish I could say the same about the gratuitous “Day of the Dead” inspired giant glowing skeletons in Jacobs-Jenkins’ recent New York production of Everybody).

An Octoroon. Set design by Mimi Lien (Photo: Pavel Antonov)

An Octoroon. Set design by Mimi Lien (Photo: Pavel Antonov)

In terms of what I dislike, I have this initial thought: Minimalism and maximalism can be equally tiresome in set design if solely a stylistic choice (veering towards showing off either the economic or cultural capital of the production).

Dan O’Neil: Let’s talk about couches. Specifically, let’s talk about the “couch” play, which has – in my mind – taken over the “kitchen sink” drama for least imaginative set design for a “new contemporary play.” I’m not sure when or why the couch became so dominant. Perhaps it’s a vestige of playwrights over-shooting the mark in terms of the imagined size of their future theater. One imagines writing a scene in a living room with a couch, and then that couch magically disappearing for stretches while the play tries to do something else.

Straight White Men, an intentional exploration of a kind of couch play. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

But, in 99% of theaters, the mid-sized and smaller ones, that’s not going to be how it works. The couch, once implemented into the design, remains on-stage the entire play. A trojan horse of situational mediocrity, it defies any attempt that the lighting designer might deploy to “shift” the living room aesthetic into something else. It’s become so prevalent (and indicative of a certain type of theatrical experience) that, if the play is reviewed and the accompanying photo features actors and a couch, I already know I’m not going to be enthused by that play. Oh, it’s a couch play.

One day I’m going to write my revenge fantasy – it’s called “Fifty Couches.” Each scene features a different couch in a slightly different position, and takes place either right before the scene begins or right after the scene ends. We never see the scene. We just see the couches, being repositioned, over and over and over again.

Joey Sims: I like it when a set spins round and round. So naturally I was satisfied this season by The Lehman Trilogy, a 3-hour plus event at the Park Avenue Armory directed by Sam Mendes.

The play traces the origins of the Lehman family and their impact on the fabric of the United States, beginning in 1844 with the emigration of Henry Lehman. Ben Power’s epic script, adapted from Stefano Massini’s original, utilizes just three actors to play multiple generations of Lehmans. 

"The Lehman Trilogy" at Park Avenue Armory (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

Es Devlin’s design of The Lehman Trilogy. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

Es Devlin’s set is a large glass box, half-filled with anonymous office desks and a few white boxes. It is a simple, stark space – and yes, it spins round and round. The simplicity is the key. As the glass box moves, it shifts from an Alabama dry good store, to a New York office of 1860, all the way to the faceless glass prison of a modern office building. Only that final location requires little imagination – which is fitting, since the the purpose and optimism of the Lehman mission has, at this point, long since drained. 

The box never ceases to surprise – after each spin, it often seemed to settle in a position unlike any we’d seen before, improbable as that is. Devlin conjures a cramped, cupboard-sized office as easily as an expansive cotton field. If we ever get comfortable, an unsettling dream sequence is soon to follow – all of which transform the sleek, smooth surfaces into something out of a nightmare. 

All of this is magical. But for me, the pleasure of a spinning set is also fairly straightforward. As I tweeted at the time: “In the third act, the set spins one way while the projections fly really fast the other way, and I was like YEEEEEEAH.” I stand by that.

Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine