In design, 'Permanent' is changeable

Times Staff Writer

TRANSFORMING a bare stage into a realistic art institution, replete with works by master painters -- and doing it twice in two very different venues -- was the challenge faced by set designers Victoria Bellocq and James Eric.

Thomas Gibbons' "Permanent Collection" is inspired by a real-life dispute at Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation, home to an eclectic assortment of 19th and 20th century paintings and other pieces. After a successful run at the 99-seat Greenway Court Theatre last year, the Robey Theatre Company-Greenway Arts Alliance co-production moved to the three-times-larger Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, where it is running through Feb. 12.

"It was challenging because even though we knew the play and the script so well, it was our second approach," Bellocq said, "and the Kirk Douglas was a much bigger space and a different shape as well."

Bellocq and Greenway artist in residence Eric -- good friends who have teamed before -- relished the chance to revisit their work.

"What we tried to do is bring more of the original [Barnes] gallery into the design because we had more room and a bigger budget," Eric said.

That meant, in part, additional paintings on the walls, oak doors and "chandeliers just like the ones at the Barnes Foundation."

Additional reproductions of works by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Modigliani and others that hang on the set were plotted via computer, printed on canvas and treated with a medium to give them the texture of real paintings.

Other works are original oils, loaned by Eastern European artist Anton Sipos.

In Gibbons' play, the new director of the Morris Foundation's desire to add more African art to a rigidly controlled Impressionist collection results in an institutional power struggle fed by issues of culture and race.

"The context and content of the play are so related to its images," Bellocq said, that even the set's basic color scheme -- red and yellow -- represents the heat of the conflict that plays out between the black director and the foundation's white art historian.

The symbology continues in the display of artwork as a juxtaposition of cultures. "Matisse is confronted with African art pieces," Bellocq said, "and Modigliani hangs next to African art."

To re-create the work of specific African tribes referred to in Gibbons' script, carvings were made of foam and painted or treated to look like wood, copper or bronze.

For the Kirk Douglas production, authentic pieces were added to the faux work.

Transparent scrims that allow the audience to view certain scenes as if looking through two Impressionist paintings were redone; the foundation's "entrance" was redesigned around a 17-feet-tall traveling wall flanked by two columns 12 feet high.

"What is important is to make it work and make it look real," Bellocq said.

The designers will team again on a play Eric is co-writing, to be produced locally in May.

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