One of the 1960s' most notorious plays, Dutchman, by Amiri Baraka (or, as he was then known, LeRoi Jones), was recently revived in a conversation-provoking production at Hartford Stage, in Connecticut. Some of the conversation, much of it held at post-performance forums, focused on the play's incendiary vision of a predatory white woman's violent encounter with an innocent black man in a New York subway. But people were also talking about Scott Bradley's inventive set design, which provided an elegant solution to a tough design problem.
The problem: How to suggest the confines of a subway car on the large thrust configuration of the Hartford Stage auditorium. Issue number one, says Bradley, was "to get the actors as close to the audience as possible, without violating the house left and right areas, and to have both characters facing everyone in the audience at some point in the play." Issue number two: "It's a tall space, and a typical subway is narrow, long, and low."
The solution: a small playing area on a turntable, placed far downstage. Actually, there are two turntables. The larger one is approximately 29' wide; within it a smaller unit about 6' wide. Each turntable is surrounded by an arrangement of steel tubing on which are hung metal subway straps, obtained from a subway yard in New Jersey. The turntables offered director Jonathan Wilson maximum flexibility. At the top of the play, Clay, the black man, enters the subway car; both turntables go into motion, to show the car in transit. When Lula, the white woman, enters, the motion stops. The smaller turntable goes into action between scenes, to re-orient the actors, or at key dramatic moments; for example, when Lula gropes Clay in an overtly sexual manner, they spin around so that the entire audience can see what's going on.
To suggest the narrow confines of a subway car, Bradley had the stage deck raised and a lower grid installed. "The distance between the new deck and the grid at the downstage point is about 10' and, at the upstage point, about 7' 6". To accentuate the feeling, there's a band of windows placed at head height that wraps about the space; it feels like you're looking into a subway car flanked by windows on either side," the designer says, adding that the shape of the new grid reflects the spiraling shape of the floor and is also made of painted pipes that are arranged in a pattern that looks like a log jam overhead.
The spinning motion of the turntable was given a vertiginous quality by the deck painting, a spiral-shaped pattern in various colors. "My first instinct was to do some kind of graffiti," Bradley says, "but the play takes place in 1964, and my research showed there wasn't a whole lot of graffiti before then. I wanted to create a sense of color, grit, and grime." Other touches included subway seats manufactured out of 1/8" steel gratings and 10 fans, souvenirs of the days before air-conditioning-hung from the grid. (Much of Bradley's research came from books obtained at the Museum of Transportation located near his former home in Brooklyn).
Bradley notes that Rui Rita's lighting design was helpful in many respects, accentuating the colors in the deck and adding the suggestion of motion when necessary. Also, Bradley says, the windows in the scenic surround were put in place with double-stick tape. The designer planned to cover the tape with aluminum ribbon; then, he discovered, "When the light hit it, it looked like blue neon, so we left the tape exposed under the Plexiglas." By carefully deploying a few key scenic elements, Bradley created an environment menacing enough to make one seriously contemplate the bus as an alternate mode of transportation.
Other design elements included John Gromada's sound, which effectively evoked the rumble of an underground train, and Susan Hilferty's period costumes. Dutchman ran at Hartford Stage through February 13.