Creating a stir is nothing new in our nation's outwardly staid, easily scandalized capital. And the city's celebrated Arena Stage has never shied away from making waves. But when you take Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and set it atop a house sunk halfway into the floor of the theatre's flagship space, you're bound to raise a few well-groomed eyebrows.
That's just what Prague-born scenographer Pavel Dobrusky did in his recent collaboration with Arena's new artistic director, Molly Smith. The production, Smith's first since assuming her post, immediately established the director's agenda: to reinterpret American classics for our time.
During her long tenure at Alaska's Perseverance Theatre, Smith often worked with Dobrusky, an artistic associate at Denver Center Theatre and Cleveland Play House, and when she brought him in to collaborate on the set and lighting for this high-profile production, she knew it would be no ordinary Cat. "Pavel works through metaphor," Smith has said, "which is so right for the Fichandler," referring to Arena's theatre-in-the-round.
Indeed, Dobrusky's remarkable set evoked various images: a boxing ring, a cage, a lion's den, a sugar cube, even Mount Olympus. "The challenge was to take it out of the literal meaning and start thinking about America, about people, and about Washington, DC," says the designer. He found inspiration in the city's architecture, with its obvious Greek and Roman influences, and the frustrations of the American aristocracy so visible in the political realm and in Williams' play. Like the Kennedys and the Clintons, says the designer, "This family is on the hot spot."
He and Smith also mined the text and mulled over Williams' characters, their passionate struggles for truth, love, money, sex, and life. They talked icons, seeing the characters as demigods and gods fighting atop Mount Olympus, "where Big Daddy is Zeus, Brick is the favorite god, and Maggie is Athena and several different goddesses, who combine into a Roman version of Diana," a reference Williams makes in the script.
But before he began to build, Dobrusky dug deep, removing the Fichandler's stage floor and not stopping until he hit the very bottom of the pit. "I wanted to get down to the roots of Arena Stage and start from there," he says. Into this gaping space went the set: a flat 20' x 25' rectangular house that rose from beneath the audience's view and towered several feet overhead. "I had some objections about sightlines, but we thought, 'No, don't worry. The idea is right,'" Dobrusky recalls.
This Plexiglas and metal construction, punctuated with ponderous marble-like pillars, shows its many tricks as the actors climb it, run around it, stand atop it, and even occasionally pop through it. The few items of furniture--a bed, dressing table, chaise-lounge, a couple of backless chairs--were kept low. Entrances and exits were made from nearly every direction, creating the sense that the characters are never really alone. Chandeliers of various styles, pulled from the theatre's stock, indicated the desperate acquisitiveness Big Daddy mentions and added a homey warmth that contrasted with stark lighting shot up through the construction's skylights.
Most of the action takes place on the roof, which, while not tin, was rendered quite hot as it was lit from both above and below. "I wanted it to feel dangerous, but also fun to work on," says Dobrusky, stressing that, although the actors were often perched 11' above the ground, their safety was his top priority. "If someone was moving too close to the edge or had a shoelace untied during rehearsal, I would stop the show." But the danger had to be there, he says. It had to be palpable. "Otherwise, it doesn't work. There are no nice relationships in this play."
Dobrusky likes to design smells into his productions--"It's a very strong sense that we need to address," he says--and in this case, he wanted the audience to detect the scent of sweat. "It's like when a light bulb is about to die, it shines the brightest," he explains, "and when people are about to die, they sweat the most. Also when they fight for their future and their life, like Maggie is. Like Mae and Gooper are, and Big Mama. They're all fighting to survive."
But the perspiration didn't stop at the footlights. Dobrusky hoped the audience would break a sweat, too. One of the designer's proudest moments came early in the show's run, when an audience member "stopped me in the hall and said, 'I've been in a similar situation where I felt I had to grab onto something and I didn't have anything to grab onto. I was sweating all the time.'" Dobrusky's response? "Good, good. You should." He laughs, "Watching people really on the edge right in front of you. Now that's exciting."
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ran from September 11 through October 18 at Arena Stage. Costumes were by Gabriel Berry, and sound design was by Susan R. White.