The way that a director and design team choose to create the physical on-stage environment for a play can make or break a production. We’ve seen well-acted scenes whose timing was irrevocably thrown off by ill-advised placement of entrances and exits, or whose believability was undermined by illogical placement of doors or set pieces. On the other hand, we’ve experienced productions where the staging amplified the meaning of the play and heightened the sense of place and the experience of the characters (and the audience). Here are some examples of staging that transformed a noteworthy production into an unforgettable theatre experience.
(in chronological order)
Copenhagen by Michael Frayn, produced by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2003: Our first three viewings of this play were in a three-month period (November 2002 to January 2003) at Indiana Rep, Milwaukee Rep, and St. Louis Rep. Fortunately, the play’s exploration of why German physicist Werner Heisenberg went to Copenhagen to see his mentor, Jewish physicist Niels Bohr, at the height of World War II is endlessly fascinating. During the course of the play, several credible explanations are posited and argued, but the audience is left with multiple possible answers to an unanswerable question. The St. Louis Rep production employed unique staging to suggest that audience members would determine in their own minds the “real” explanation for Heisenberg’s trip to Copenhagen. The scenic design, by Chicago-based Todd Rosenthal, featured an elevated jury box in which we sat with ten other audience members, looking down at the actors. We don’t know if this was distracting to the people sitting in regular audience seats, but it was a singular experience for us and a highly engaging way to view this intriguing play.
Lobby Hero by Kenneth Lonergan, produced by Redtwist Theatre in 2010: Redtwist took full advantage of their storefront location for Lobby Hero, using the real-life street scene right outside their door as part of the set (designed by Andrew Jessop, who also played the title role). Chicago’s Bryn Mawr Avenue was in full view of the audience, supplying not just sights but sounds, thanks to a microphone attached to the theatre’s exterior. On occasion, characters would exchange banter on the sidewalk before stepping indoors. Passers-by would peer in briefly, until realizing they had become part of the show. This Keira Fromm-directed production would have been noteworthy if played on a traditional set, but the unique staging is a big factor in its enduring impact.
Romeo Juliet by Shakespeare/Graney, produced by The Hypocrites in 2012: When The Hypocrites created their streamlined, updated version of Romeo and Juliet, adapter/director Sean Graney tasked the four-person cast with devising a production design that would deliver an intimate experience. What Walter Briggs, Tien Doman, Lindsey Gavel, and Zeke Sulkes came up with was perfectly in sync with Graney’s focused, high-impact distillation. They created a small tent (with draped sheets as walls) where padded benches along the four sides each cozily accommodated 10 audience members. And in that pressure-cooker-sized space barely over 100 sq. ft., we experienced the most entertaining and deeply moving version of Romeo and Juliet that we had ever seen.
Long Way Go Down by Zayn Dohrn, produced by Jackalope in 2012: This masterfully written thriller takes place in the Arizona desert, where a Mexican couple can’t pay their debt to the less-than-upstanding truckers who smuggled them into the U.S. The Jackalope production featured a talented and committed cast, Kaiser Ahmed’s perfectly paced direction, and Alex Farrington’s frighteningly realistic fight choreography. But the other crucial element that made this show so memorable was the staging (in an expansive but bare-bones space at the Viaduct Theater, with set design by John Wilson). Part of the action takes place in a massive semi truck on a middle-of-the-night run as the tension mounts—not a scene you expect to see in a storefront theatre production! Claire Sangster’s lighting design heightened the feeling of isolation and the sense that this was not going to go as planned.
The Mother by Bertolt Brecht, produced by Oracle Theatre in 2013 (and reprised in 2014): In Oracle Theatre’s small performance space, you were always close to the action; so when their online blurb about The Mother said that directer Max Truax’s “staging draws the audience into Brecht’s conflict, placing them at the very feet of the revolutionary movement,” it sounded like just what you’d expect at this intimate, intense theatre. But Truax and scenic designer Eleanor Kahn took “intimate” to a new level, both literally and figuratively, erasing the distinction between stage and audience space. The performance area was filled with long heavy wooden tables, at which audience members sat on stools. The table tops served as the stage, with most of the action taking place inches from the theatergoers (who seemed more like extras in crowd scenes than mere spectators). When actors went “off stage,” they crouched under the tables at the audience’s feet, while the fearless, ferociously performed drama went on overhead. Production photos (like the one above) showed the set and actors, but “you had to be there” to grasp the intensity of this uniquely visceral production.
The Killer Angels by Shaara/Tarjan, produced by Lifeline Theatre in 2013: How do you reenact the Battle of Gettysburg on a stage the size of a living room, with only 15 actors? The first thing you’d want to do is sign up director Matt Miller. His creative staging of Karen Tarjan’s superb adaptation of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels was the most emotionally affecting depiction of battle that we had ever experienced. For example, the climactic scene depicting Pickett’s Charge (where over 12,000 Confederate soldiers advanced through open fields against the Union Army) was staged with two columns of just a half dozen or so actors, accompanied by the sounds of battle. A soldier at the front of the column would drop the coat of his uniform to the floor (indicating he’d been killed) and pass his rifle to the next soldier in line. Then he’d go to the rear of the column, don another coat, and work his way to the front again as the cycle was repeated over and over. The cumulative effect of this assembly-line slaughter and the piling up of coats (bodies) was a gut-wrenching realization of the insanity and futility of an unwinnable battle. The staging was thoughtful rather than bombastic, and created searing mental images that persist to this day.
The Royale by Marco Ramirez, at American Theatre Company in 2015: The Royale tells the story of a fictional boxer based on Jack Johnson, the first African-American to hold the world heavyweight title. But the staging was unlike any theatrical depiction of boxing we’d ever seen, in that both boxers faced the audience rather than each other. In accordance with the playwright’s stage directions, instead of physical contact, punches were conveyed by percussive body sounds made by actors not otherwise involved in the scene. For example, an ensemble member’s foot stomp or chest slap (accompanied by a a corresponding recoil from the boxer) conveyed a punch that landed. In an illuminating interview with @This Stage Magazine, playwright Ramirez explained that “Each sequence is designed to help the audience get inside the boxers’ heads — each jab, each punch,” and indeed, it worked to perfection. The staging transformed this play from one about boxing into a much deeper theatrical experience about people, race, identity, dreams, challenges, motivations, relationships, and opportunities.
In American Theatre Company’s production, director Jaime Castaneda chose to have two actors dedicated to providing the body percussion sound effects throughout the play (rather than reusing the actors with speaking parts). At the performance we saw, only one of the two body percussionists was present. He provided such a thrilling, full sound track that we didn’t realize until after the show that he was doing double duty.
The White Road by Karen Tarjan, produced by Irish Theatre of Chicago in 2015: It would have been interesting to hear the initial reaction of the scenic design team (Ira Amyx, John Peplinski, and Merje Veski) during early discussions about the environment required for The White Road. The play, directed by Robert Kauzlaric, depicts Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to cross Antarctica from sea to sea by way of the South Pole. In other words, on the second-floor main stage at the Den Theatre, aka Antarctica, the cast would embark on their journey (in their aptly named ship “The Endurance”), see pack ice destroy their ship, and then set out on foot and in makeshift boats on the White Road in hopes of finding a route to survival. This took a remarkable collaboration involving director, design team, lighting (Julian Pike), projection design (Smooch Medina), sound design (Victoria DeIorio), and stage management (Jen Bukovsky).
High Fidelity by Kitt and Green, produced by Refuge Theatre Project in 2017 (a remount of their 2016 hit): High Fidelity is one of those shows that thrives when the audience can palpably experience the play’s physical environment—little wonder it didn’t work on Broadway. Director/choreographer Christopher Pazdernik placed his brilliant cast and musicians not in a theatre, but in a Wicker Park storefront outfitted to the last detail as “The Last Real Record Store on Earth” (thanks to set and props designer Michelle Manni). Having spent countless hours in similar establishments over the years, we had an overwhelming urge to browse the records as we waited for the show to start. Once it did, we were carried away by the talent and total commitment of the cast and crew. We can’t imagine a more joyful bonding of artists and audience than the two-and-a-half hours we spent at “Refuge Records.” Interesting note: Just three weeks earlier, we had attended Route 66 Theatre Company’s concert version of High Fidelity, in which performers from Route 66’s 2009 hit production joined with cast members and musicians from the Refuge production for an unforgettable evening. It had a very “Chicago feel,” featuring mutually supportive theatre companies and artists.