THE POETRY OF SET DESIGNING

Unlike colleague Martin Bernheimer (see last week's Calendar), I'm not bothered when the audience applauds the scenery. Sometimes it's the only recognition the set designer gets.

Audiences--even critics--tend to take good set design for granted these days. But the set designer isn't just someone who bestows some more or less apt "scenery" around the stage. He or she creates a world for the play to happen in. The shape and the texture of that world will have a lot to do with the way the viewer perceives the play. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in an elfin forest is a fairy tale. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in a white handball court, as in Sally Jacobs' famous setting for Peter Brook's production, is a competition.

Besides providing the play an imaginary landscape, the set designer marks off the space where the play will be performed--designs its playing field, if you will. If the field is hard to negotiate, the play will suffer. I remember a performance of "Julius Caesar" at the Stratford, Conn., Shakespeare Festival where the stage was so steeply raked that it was all the actors could do not to tumble into the audience. It's hard to think about your lines and your feet at the same time.

A good set, then, is both practical and imaginative. No matter how complicated it is--and the sets for a big musical can be very complicated--it will make sense. And no matter how simple it is, it will have poetry. Neil Peter Jampolis' set for Lily Tomlin's "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" can be described as a bare stage with a couple of chairs on it, but with Jampolis' lighting, it can travel anywhere--even to outer space. The less a designer puts onstage, the more thought he or she has put into it.

Another kind of set demands to be looked at, and may even demand to be touched. Take John Napier's great clattering junkyard for "Cats," with its mounds of squashed cereal boxes and auto bumpers. The audience is invited to wander through it at intermission, and they have as much fun doing so as gallery-goers touring one of Red Grooms' walk-through sculptures.

One would have liked to do the same for Ming Cho Lee's "Traveler in the Dark" set at the Taper a couple of seasons ago, kicking up its fallen leaves and touching its old stone wall. The autumnal texture of this set was so compelling that it's possible it drowned out the play.

Settings can do that. It was a revelation when Shakespeare's plays were taken out of the heavy operatic settings of the 19th Century and put back on a spare platform stage. Suddenly the scenes moved quickly and the words found a new energy.

A sensitive designer always leaves room for the play. Cliff Faulkner's set for South Coast Repertory's "Blue Window" was little more than a slab of blue marble, and it's interesting to read Faulkner's ideas on that set in the current issue of Theatre Crafts magazine. He was after the feeling of an art gallery, he says, with the play's characters seen as "seven portraits for us to study."

Yet the play was supposed to be happening in various apartments all over New York City. What a bore if Faulkner had tried to show them!

Yet there's a place for the set that does show everything. "Wild Honey" at the Ahmanson--a theater that needs big, busy sets--takes place in the Russian countryside just as summer has finally declared itself. The view of a moonlit field cut by a railroad track is so breathtaking that you can feel the perfume in the air, the permission to go crazy until dawn. John Gunter deserves the applause here.

But a good designer can find poetry anywhere, even in jail. "Days and Nights Within" at the Back Alley Theatre takes place in an East Berlin prison in 1950. That's as gray a background as a play can have, and the designer can't do cute tricks with it.

But Rich Rose didn't read this as a mandate to be boring. He split the prison into two sectors, set at slightly different levels--one representing a party interrogator's office, the other representing the heroine's cell. The crack between them could have been caused by an earthquake, but also suggested the division between two different ways of thinking--the male interrogator's straight-line kind and the female prisoner's imagistic kind.

And each character kept crossing each other's boundary. This struck at least one viewer more deeply than anything that was actually said in the play.

Rose's stucco walls also took light well, sometimes suggesting the similarity between a prison cell and a nun's narrow chamber. At other times the light (by Leslie Rose and Ken Lennon) would take us into one of the prisoner's nightmares, at which point the prison would, in effect, disappear. Mr. Rose knows how to defer.

Designers don't think up sets all by themselves. There's always consultation with the director, who may have a very specific idea in mind or just some general images. It follows that the director should share in the praise for a good set and the blame for a terrible one.

But we don't see many really terrible sets, except in the lower depths of Waiver theater. More often, when a set doesn't work, it's a question of a good idea that didn't come off, or that would have worked for a different play.

LATC's "All My Sons" last season took place on the lawn of a handsome Greek Revival house that would have been perfect for "Mourning Becomes Electra." That wasn't a whim on designer D. Martyn Bookwalter's part. It was evident in Bill Bushnell's staging that we were meant to see the connection between Miller, O'Neill and the Greeks. What was lost, unfortunately, was the sense of an ordinary American backyard after the war.

Again, Douglas Stein's setting for Gordon Davidson's production of "Ghetto" at the Taper is a magnificent stage sculpture, and its connotations of slatted boxcars would seem absolutely right for the world of the play.

But something in the set's monumentality and ingenuity (the slats can take different angles) gets in the way. A rougher, crueler wall seems to be needed to convey the pain of the play. Yet Stein's set may have seemed exactly right--just cool enough--when it was only a model. Scale is all-important in a sculptural set, and it can never quite be foreseen until it's too late.

Being a thrust stage house, the Taper's sets tend to be sculptural. Picture-frame stages encourage picture-frame settings, and there can be great pleasure in mentally entering the picture and noticing that the details are absolutely right. An example was Rose's set for the Back Alley's "Found a Peanut," a wire-fenced apartment courtyard with just enough of a "yard" for the kids in the play to bury a dead bird.

But the picture doesn't have to suggest a real-life scene. Jill Moon's set for "The Three Cuckholds" at the La Jolla Playhouse looked as if it had been cut from construction paper, the perfect backdrop for a flat-out commedia dell' arte romp. Michael H. Yeargan's set for the American Repertory Theatre's "The King Stag" was a white square on which all sorts of fanciful figures could cavort, like a cartoonist's pad.

This may be a golden age of set design. Robin Wagner, John Lee Beatty, John Napier, Ralph Funicello--one could list at least a dozen absolutely first-class contemporary designers. Indeed, some observers feel that the American and British theater is becoming design-happy, with shows like "Cats" and "Starlight Express" and "Les Miserables" existing primarily for their visuals.

Could be. As in the last days of the Roman theater, we could be sinking into a sea of dazzling scenic effects, unconnected to anything that speaks to the mind or the heart. On the other hand, the court masque--designed to knock out the eye--co-existed happily with the plays of Shakespeare and Moliere. Visual extravagance has its place in the theater, as long as audiences don't get addicted to it.

Designers are as aware of the problem as anyone, and the good ones have no desire to take the play away from the playwright. They gain as much pleasure in providing an empty stage--the right empty stage--as a stage full of electronified garbage. The John Napier who does tricks in "Cats" also provides the (seemingly) bare boards for "Nicholas Nickleby."

But, as Napier was saying in London this spring, an empty stage won't do if the script is also empty. An audience needs to have some excuse to come to the theater. If the story and the characters don't provide involvement, the look of the show had better do so, or the public will be off at the movies watching "Rambo IV" or, worse, staying home with their VCRs.

The best theater combines the words and the look. Don't applaud the set next time the curtain goes up (assuming you can find a theater that still uses a curtain), lest Bernheimer be sitting behind you. But be aware of the set and the artist who designed it.

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