Art takes a leading role in two area productions


Inventive set designs help communicate messages of plays

April 03, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Visual art and those who create it can be tricky to portray on stage. Paintings and sculptures are generally static, and the creative process is partly internal and often slow. It's literally a matter of watching paint dry.

That hasn't discouraged playwrights or theaters from portraying art and artists and using them as windows into society's soul.

In Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1984 musical, Sunday in the Park With George, for example, the life of Georges Seurat offers insights into the loneliness and intensity of genius. And in Yasmina Reza's 1998 Tony Award winner, Art, the purchase of a white-on-white painting becomes a forum for examining the fragility of friendship.

Now a pair of productions in the Baltimore-Washington area demonstrates the challenges as well as appeal of art on stage.

At Center Stage, Thomas Gibbons' Permanent Collection uses a plot loosely based on controversies surrounding Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation to illuminate race relations. And at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., Jon Robin Baitz'sTen Unknowns turns the story of a rediscovered figurative painter into an exploration of integrity and the perils of commerce.

In each case, inventive sets cast additional light on the plays' themes. A wall of impressionist paintings in gilt frames rises into the rafters and floats back down at various times in Permanent Collection, suggesting change is in the air at the institution. In Ten Unknowns, the artist's house is formed from the backs of canvases; the realization that his world is falling apart is reinforced by the removal of canvases, leaving gaping holes.

David Schweizer, director of Permanent Collection at Center Stage, is intrigued by plays about art because they offer built-in imagery. But, he says, the question then becomes: "How much imagery to use or not to use? ... Do you try and duplicate the art, replicate the art on stage and draw audiences in because of literal imagery or do you encourage them to imagine?"

Since its debut in Philadelphia in 2003, Permanent Collection has had nine productions, and playwright Gibbons, who has seen all but one, reports that there have been widely varied approaches to representing the idiosyncratic, crowded way in which the late Alfred Barnes displayed his collection.

The initial production featured framed reproductions in what Gibbons describes as a "realistic museum" look. The second, mounted in Florida, used gold frames containing what the playwright calls "dark, reflective material."

"We look at this `art,' and at this play with its complicated, earnest, flawed people. And we see ourselves," wrote Miami Herald critic Christine Dolen.

Last month, a Chicago area theater relied entirely on lighting effects; the art was represented by frames of light surrounding projections of impressionistic colors. "It was very appropriate since the impressionists were about light," Gibbons says.

At Center Stage, director Schweizer and set designer Andrew Lieberman came up with a multifaceted solution. The wall of framed reproductions evokes Barnes' exhibition style, but having the paintings appear and disappear avoids the "deadening effect of sitting for the duration of the play in one literal setting," Schweizer explains.

Director and designer devised a particularly eloquent visual representation of the play's central conflict - a dispute between the art collection's newly appointed African-American director and its white, longtime education director. Defying the collector's will, the museum director wants to take eight African sculptures out of storage and add them to the few already on display.

To keep this conflict in the forefront of the audience's minds, two small African sculptures in a centrally located case are the only artworks on stage throughout the production. When the new director adds a third sculpture to the case, the effect is startling.

Like Permanent Collection, Baitz's Ten Unknowns was originally staged realistically - both on the East Coast (in 2001, starring Donald Sutherland as fictitious artist Malcolm Raphelson) and on the West (in 2003, starring Stacy Keach). Baitz calls the approach "more literal than I am at peace with."

There was no danger of that at Signature, where director Rick DesRochers collaborated with a set designer, Stephanie Nelson, who is also an artist specializing in installations. In the play, the life of a washed-up artist is thrown into turmoil by a rapacious dealer who hopes to revive the artist's career.

Nelson's set reflects this turmoil. Not only does removing canvases from the artist's house leave holes, but near the end, the walls swing apart. The set "is an installation that comes apart and represents Raphelson's emotions as things from the past and present are piercing through," says DesRochers.

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