Head Theater's first birthday is time to evaluate, but not to render a final verdict

March 15, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Center Stage's Head Theater celebrated its first birthday recently. There was no fanfare -- not even a cake.

But four productions have been mounted in the innovative state-of-the-art, flexible-seating facility over the past year. And next month the theater's annual gala, Center Stage Presents, will include a tribute to the late Howard Head, for whom, together with his wife Martha, the second production space is named.

This would appear to be an appropriate time to evaluate the theater's success. After all, the first four Head Theater productions -- Eric Overmyer's "The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin," Charles Ludlam's "The Mystery of Irma Vep," Ugo Betti's "The Queen and the Rebels" and William Shakespeare's "Pericles, Prince of Tyre" -- certainly give a good idea of the varied fare this fourth-floor space can accommodate.

But at the same time, the very nature of the Head Theater suggests it may be too soon to render a final verdict. Indeed, if the theater's versatility truly lives up to its billing, it will always be too soon, since there will always be more possibilities to explore.

Yet there are several ways in which the Head Theater already deserves praise. Unlike a more traditional theater -- such as the first-floor Pearlstone Theater, which has fixed seating and a permanent stage -- the Head Theater's most exciting characteristics are its lack of a defined stage and its movable seating towers and banks of seats. Indeed, the space is so malleable, the theater itself can almost become a character in the play. The danger is that in the wrong hands it can upstage the play and become the star. It is admirable that this hasn't happened at Center Stage, where serving the text has remained the foremost consideration.

Center Stage's use of the Head Theater is also praiseworthy in a subtler way. Most theaters build a second space and immediately assign it second place. It's used for odd, experimental stuff or plays that aren't likely to attract a wide audience. That has hardly been the case here. If it were, the re:Discovery series, which opens later this month and focuses on new plays and new approaches to old texts, would be staged upstairs, and Shakespeare would always be produced in the Pearlstone. Instead, the practice has been to mount the plays in the most appropriate space.

Let's look at the first four productions. For even though they may offer only a hint of the Head Theater's full potential, it's a tantalizing and informative hint. At the risk of sounding glib, the .. tone of these four plays could be individually described as lyrical ("Heliotrope"), satirical ("Irma Vep"), political ("Queen and the Rebels") and classical ("Pericles"). So far, each in its distinct way has been enhanced by the space in which it was mounted. In addition, each has emphasized a different feature of the space. And, with more varied results, each has demonstrated how the personality of the space can be altered to reflect the personality of the play.

Fittingly, the theater debuted with a world premiere, "The Heliotrope Bouquet." A poetic evocation of ragtime that owed as much to dreams as history, the production utilized dusky lighting, stage smoke and a huge circular staircase that just may have reached to the stars.

"Heliotrope's" lighting was designed by Richard Pilbrow, who was also the principal consultant on the design of the theater. Not surprisingly, he zeroed in on one of the theater's most distinctive features -- the five arched windows on the east wall of the building, which originally served as the auditorium and library of Loyola College and High School. To simulate daybreak, he mounted airfield lamps in a room above the stage and directed them at a large mirror suspended on the building across the street; the mirror then reflected the light back through the windows. However, the effect was so fleeting and subtle, most patrons probably failed to appreciate it. And the truth is, both "The Queen and the Rebels" and "Pericles" utilized similar effects, created far more simply -- by building a second, fake window and keeping all the apparatus within the theater itself.

The set-up for the next production, "Irma Vep," wasn't even remotely similar to "Heliotrope." For starters, the stage was at the opposite end of the room -- against the west wall -- and the seating towers were arranged in a horseshoe surrounding a larger section of orchestra seats. The design concept for this spoof of a penny dreadful was to recreate a 19th century opera house, and one of its most delightful elements was that set designer Hugh Landwehr carried the design over into the seating area, festooning the towers like ornate opera boxes and hanging a gilded chandelier, replete with X-rated Cupids, over the orchestra.

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