IN A WORLD filtered by means of screens, a situation made much more acute throughout pandemic lockdown, the theater’s most anachronistic thrill would appear to be watching lives unfold earlier than us. The actors could not actually be inside our grasp, however the lack of a barrier between them and us, the phantasm that we’re, for as soon as, really within the room — the sound of the human voice in anguish or pleasure, a carafe of water crashing to the ground — has by no means appeared extra stirring and important.
Or maybe not. Even earlier than Covid-19, many bold productions had been going down not within the three-sided black packing containers that outlined the experimental zest and rising punk of the late Nineteen Seventies, or the crowd-pleasing theater-in-the-round pioneered in historical Greece and Rome and revitalized within the mid-Twentieth century, however in elaborately engineered glass cubes that evoke the Worldwide Type’s excessive Modernism and the minimalist penthouses of the up to date metropolis. There wouldn’t appear to be a extra flagrant violation of dramatic immediacy.
And but the design is, as of late, ubiquitous. After a protracted Broadway hiatus, “The Lehman Trilogy,” directed by Sam Mendes, opens subsequent month on the Nederlander Theater; throughout its practically three-and-a-half-hour length, three actors play a cavalcade of characters from the greater than 160-year historical past of Lehman Brothers, the notorious funding home, encased in a revolving clear field conceived by the British designer Es Devlin. The 2016 Younger Vic manufacturing of Federico García Lorca’s “Yerma” (1934), directed by the then-31-year-old Australian Simon Stone, was restaged in 2018 at New York’s cavernous Park Avenue Armory in what was basically a large terrarium. That very same yr, the German designer Miriam Buether constructed a glassed-in room with an enormous tilting mirror because the again wall for a revival of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” (1991), directed by Joe Mantello on Broadway. And for his 2017 Nationwide Theater adaptation of the movie “Network” (1976), which got here to Broadway the next yr, the Belgian auteur Ivo van Hove put his stage supervisor in a big glass field, casting him as a personality who ran each the precise play and the legendary tv broadcast on the middle of the plot.
A completely up to date materials, glass creates what Buether calls “an ultimate filmic quality, like looking through a lens.” Even earlier than worry of an infection drove us behind protecting plexiglass shields and decreased most human interplay to Zoom, theater audiences had come to understand the trippy perceptual results of multimedia improvements — video projections have change into commonplace onstage, significantly as pioneered by van Hove and others. Such results are actually a part of the theatrical expertise, a technique to warp viewers expectations. As soon as, updating a basic with, say, trendy costume or gender-blind casting was provocative and transformational, permitting us to see the textual content anew; now, the stage itself has change into the terra nova that jolts us, a glass cage making literal these works’ themes of isolation and vulnerability.
FOR THE VIEWER one thing by means of it, glass affords each a refined shift and a seismic one; it alters every thing whereas visually altering little or no. “You know that what you’re watching is different, but you can’t quite tell why,” says Buether, 52, who, for the second act of “Three Tall Women,” created two rooms — mirror photos of one another — separated by a wall of plexiglass, after which positioned a mirrored wall behind them, creating a number of photos of the characters and echoing the play’s notions of id and time. “It’s like making the fourth wall tangible, as though peering into a display case. You adjust to it quickly — I mean, it’s transparent — but it never really disappears.”
For Stone, who has set reveals behind glass a half dozen instances, starting together with his 2011 manufacturing of Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” (1885) at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theater, the self-esteem works greatest with a selected a part of the canon: intimate performs “that plumb the dark night of the soul,” he says. A specialist in reviving the works of home naturalism that distinguished European theater within the late nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, he believes that utilizing glass, typically in near-bare environments, has enabled him to reinvent these performs for a brand new era. Again when Ibsen was writing, Stone notes, it was radical to set works in bourgeois residing rooms as a substitute of castles and fields, however such environments now appear banal. “I thought to myself: ‘What would happen if you actually put the glass between the action and audience?’” he says. “‘What if you make it an obstacle that has to be overcome, that the audience has to lean into?’”
For “Yerma,” he wished the title character’s descent into insanity after she’s unable to bear a baby to look inescapable; for “The Wild Duck,” he was in search of so as to add a medical side to a plot that culminates in a younger woman unexpectedly capturing herself within the chest: “I was very conscious of not turning it into suicide porn,” he says. He used a sequence of revolving stacked glass packing containers — roughly evocative of a Modernist chalet — for his 2017 Theater Basel manufacturing of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” printed in 1901, “because it made the realities of their lives even more brutal and confined.” Paradoxically, actors thrive within the glass field, he provides: “Sometimes being fully exposed can inhibit them. You have too close a connection to the audience; you are too aware. The illusion that they are in a private room makes them feel safe.”
Nonetheless, working behind glass shouldn’t be with out its distinctive technical challenges. In case you put your solid in a field, particularly one with a lid, you chop off all risk of acoustical naturalism. Many performs as of late are miked, however the amplification is designed to be undetectable, creating the phantasm of proximity; as soon as there’s a closed dice, verisimilitude turns into extra advanced. “Yes, you lose the sound of the natural voice,” says Stone, “but you gain extreme aural intimacy.”
Devlin, 50, who has designed tour units for Billie Eilish and Beyoncé, in addition to for operas, can be accustomed to the trade-offs of a glass field. For her and Mendes, who started as a theater director earlier than shifting to movie, this type of spare set supplies a juxtaposition to an epic historic work like “Lehman.” The boardroom, in addition to the opposite workplace areas wherein the play unspools, “conveys both claustrophobia and expanse, intruding on the audience’s domain,” she says, and winks on the glassed-in convention areas which have change into company America’s heavy-handed try at conveying “transparency.” Inside, the field is split into three chambers with inside glass partitions on which the actors scrawl the names of the Civil Struggle lifeless and the value of commodities. The rectangle’s perimeter is shaped by glass panels between that are open gaps, which enhance the acoustics and act like apertures, permitting the motion to maneuver from vast display screen to shut up. That the field additionally revolves creates the equal of a Hollywood monitoring shot: “Sam loves that, of course,” Devlin says.
However cramming the motion right into a single room additionally has a deeper significance. When Devlin labored with the director Trevor Nunn on the 1998 London revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” (1978), which passed off in a deconstructed facsimile of a domicile wherein the home windows had been mere outlines on the partitions, she referenced the British sculptor Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 “House,” a ghostly, stable cast-concrete duplicate of a rowhouse, which stood on an East London avenue for 3 months. Collectively, the sculpture and the manufacturing reminded viewers how the confines of residence could be each stable and ephemeral. For “Lehman,” Devlin was additionally impressed by “Tango,” a semi-animated eight-minute 1981 quick by the Polish director Zbigniew Rybczynski, wherein dozens of individuals appear to concurrently inhabit a small entrance parlor, their elaborate dance compacting time and house. “There’s a message embedded in a single room,” says Devlin, “that architecture itself is the vessel through which history — whether intimate or monumental — is enacted. Glass helps you make that message explicit: A room is more than just a passive container. It remembers life.”
Set design: Todd Knopke