Monday, May 28, 2012

Endgame and Play, at ACT

One thing I didn't cover in my review of the Beckett double bill at ACT was the set design, which was by Daniel Ostling. I don't often write about set design because (and this is a fair criticism of many critics) I'm not a visual person, even as a writer in this quite visual of mediums. But I did have a strong reaction to this particular scenic design.

The room seems to be at the base of a tower that goes up forever; ACT's stage cannot begin to contain it, or even suggest where it ends. I thought it an apt design for Beckett's world, where the time is "the same as always" and even thinking about change feels pointless.

(The model of Ostling's set for Endgame, taken from the theater's Words on Plays. The photo doesn't convey the way the walls in the real thing seem to stretch into infinity.)

But ACT's production of The Homecoming, from the previous year, used an uncannily similar set design, also by Ostling. The walls did pretty much the exact same thing; it's just that instead of looking into a corner, the audience looks straight-on toward a rear wall: 

(Here you get a clearer idea of what Ostling did with the walls in both productions. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

There's definitely some justification for visualizing the worlds of the two plays in similar ways: They are both islands unto themselves, isolated from the rest of the world (if there is one); both sets of characters do little more than try to pass the time.

The parallel made me wonder about the difference between reappropriating/recycling a visual concept and copying it. The whole time I was watching Endgame I kept thinking, "This idea is so bold and dramatic, and I loved it when I saw it in The Homecoming." The resemblance distracted me; I had a hard time appreciating Endgame as an independent, new piece.

In the end, I guess I feel that even if a set design for a previous show is fabulous, a designer should push him or herself to design a new set that's fabulous in its own way; any reference to previous work should have a specific justification, such as a desire to allude to an entire past production.

Endgame and Play continues through June 3; info here.

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