IN A WORLD filtered through screens, a condition made even more acute during the pandemic lockdown, the theater’s most anachronistic thrill would seem to be watching lives unfold before us. The actors may not literally be within our grasp, but the absence of a barrier between them and us, the illusion that we are, for once, really in the play – the sound of the human voice in anguish or joy, a jug of water crashing to the ground – has never seemed more moving and essential.
Or maybe not. Even before Covid-19, many ambitious productions had taken place not in the three-sided black boxes that defined the experimental zest and emerging punk of the late 1970s, or the crowd-pleasing, pioneering round theater in ancient Greece. and Rome and revitalized in the mid-20th century, but in elaborate glass cubes that evoke the high modernism of the international style and the minimalist penthouses of the contemporary metropolis. There does not appear to be a more egregious violation of dramatic immediacy.
And yet, design is ubiquitous lately. After a long break on Broadway, “The Lehman Trilogy”, directed by Sam Mendes, opens next month at the Nederlander Theater; During its nearly three-and-a-half-hour span, three actors play a cavalcade of characters from over 160 years of history from Lehman Brothers, the infamous investment house, enclosed in a rotating transparent box designed by British designer Es Devlin. The Young Vic 2016 production of Federico GarcÃa Lorca’s ‘Yerma’ (1934), directed by then-31-year-old Australian Simon Stone, premiered in 2018 at New York’s cavernous Park Avenue Armory in what was essentially a giant terrarium. That same year, German designer Miriam Buether built a glass room with a huge tilting mirror as the back wall for a cover of “Three Tall Women” by Edward Albee (1991), directed by Joe Mantello on Broadway. And for its 2017 National Theater adaptation of the film âNetworkâ (1976), which arrived on Broadway the following year, Belgian author Ivo van Hove placed his stage manager in a large glass box, presenting him as a character who directed both the actual play and the mythical TV show at the center of the plot.
A decidedly contemporary material, glass creates what Buether calls âultimate cinematic quality, like looking through a lensâ. Even before the fear of infection pushed us behind protective plexiglass shields and curtailed most human interaction at Zoom, theater audiences had come to appreciate the trippy perceptual effects of multimedia innovations – the video projections are have become commonplace on stage, especially like those launched by van Hove and others. Such effects are now part of the theatrical experience, a way to distort audience expectations. In the past, updating a classic with, say, a modern dress or gender-neutral cast was provocative and transformational, allowing us to revisit the text; now, the scene itself has become the terra nova that shakes us, a glass cage making literal the themes of the isolation and vulnerability of these works.
FOR THE SPECTATOR looking through something, glass offers both subtle change and seismic change; it modifies while visually changing very little. âYou know what you’re looking at is different, but you can’t really say why,â says Buether, 52, who, for the second act of âThree Great Women,â created two pieces – mirror images the one from the other – separated by a plexiglass wall, then placed a mirrored wall behind them, creating multiple images of the characters and echoing the play’s notions of identity and time. âIt’s like making the fourth wall tangible, like looking in a shop window. You adapt to it quickly – I mean, it’s transparent – but it never really goes away. “
For Stone, who has put on shows behind glass half a dozen times, starting with his 2011 production of “Henrik Ibsen”The Wild Duck(1885) at Belvoir St Theater in Sydney, vanity works best with a particular part of the canon: intimate pieces “that probe the dark night of the soul,” he says. A specialist in the revival of works of domestic naturalism that distinguished European theater at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, he believes that the use of glass, often in almost naked environments, allowed him to reinvent these plays for a new generation. At the time Ibsen was writing, Stone notes, it was radical to place works in bourgeois living rooms instead of castles and fields, but such environments now seem mundane. âI was like, ‘What if you really put the glass between the action and the audience?’ He said. “” What if you made it an obstacle to overcome that the audience has to lean on? “”
For “Yerma”, he wanted the main character’s descent into madness after she was unable to bear a child to seem inevitable; for “The Wild Duck” he sought to add a clinical aspect to a plot that culminates in a young girl shooting herself in the chest unexpectedly: “I was very conscious of not making suicide porn out of it”, he said. He used a series of rotating stacked glass boxes – somewhat reminiscent of a Modernist chalet – for his 2017 Basel Theater production by Anton Chekhov “Three sisters“, Published in 1901,” because it made the realities of their lives even more brutal and confined. Paradoxically, actors thrive in the glass box, he adds: âSometimes being completely exposed can inhibit them. You have too close a connection with the public; you are too aware. The illusion that they are in a private room makes them feel safe.
Yet working behind glass is not without unique technical challenges. If you put your cast in a box, especially with a cover, you cut off any possibility of acoustic naturalism. Many rooms these days are microphones, but the amplification is designed to be undetectable, creating the illusion of proximity; once there is a closed cube, the likelihood becomes more complex. “Yes, you lose the sound of the natural voice,” says Stone, “but you gain extreme auditory privacy.”
Devlin, 50, who has designed touring sets for Billie Eilish and BeyoncÃ©, as well as operas, is also used to the compromises of a glass box. For her and Mendes, who started out as a director before moving on to film, this kind of alternate setting provides a juxtaposition to an epic historical work like “Lehman”. The boardroom, along with the other office spaces in which the room takes place, “conveys both claustrophobia and expanse, intruding into the realm of the public,” she says, and winks. ‘Eye to the glassed-in conference spaces that have become large American corporations attempting to convey “transparency.” Inside, the box is divided into three chambers with internal glass partitions on which the actors scribble the names of the Civil War dead and the price of the goods. The perimeter of the rectangle is formed of glass panels between which there are open spaces, which improve acoustics and act as openings, allowing the action to go from a wide screen to a close-up. The fact that the box spins also creates the equivalent of a Hollywood tracking shot: âSam loves it, of course,â says Devlin.
But cramming the action into one room also has a deeper meaning. When Devlin worked with director Trevor Nunn on the 1998 London revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” (1978), which took place in a deconstructed facsimile of a home in which the windows were only outlines on the walls, she referred to the British sculptor Rachel. The 1993 Whiteread ‘House’, a ghostly, sturdy cast concrete replica of a townhouse, which stood on an east London street for three months. Together, the sculpture and the production reminded viewers how the confines of the house can be both solid and ephemeral. For “Lehman”, Devlin was also inspired by “Tango“, an eight-minute semi-animated short film from 1981 by Polish director Zbigniew Rybczynski, in which dozens of people seem to inhabit a small front parlor simultaneously, their elaborate dance compacting time and space.” There is a message embedded in one piece, “says Devlin,” that architecture itself is the vessel through which history – whether intimate or monumental – unfolds. Glass helps you make this message explicit: a room is more than just a passive container, it remembers life.
Scenography: Todd Knopke