Freedomland may be the wildest comedy never to win a Pulitzer Prize. Amy Freed's play was short-listed for the coveted award after its debut at South Coast Repertory, in Costa Mesa, CA. The subsequent buzz was sufficient to propel the work to New York, where it was produced by Playwrights Horizons, to mixed reviews and a shortish run. However, nobody disputed that Loy Arcenas had designed a handsome set that perfectly mirrored the skewed perspective of Freed's writing.
Compared by some critics to Heartbreak House, by others to You Can't Take It With You, Freedomland focuses on one deeply dysfunctional American family, a group that functions as a petri dish for every harebrained utopian philosophy currently in vogue. The cast of characters includes Sig, whose portraits of clown hobos have made her an art-world star; Carrie, a blocked academic who despairs of finishing her dissertation, "Simile as Metaphor"; Seth, a survivalist, whose hobby is blowing up public buildings, and Lori, his innocent wife. The family patriarch is Noah, a burned-out 60s survivor whose brain synapses don't work too well, and Claude, his second wife, a therapist whose bizarre psychosexual theories encourage hot-tub sexual encounters with her clients.
The primary setting of the play is Noah and Claude's home, described as "an old house somewhere in upstate New York." Arcenas designed a farmhouse with a uniquely skewed perspective. Located downstage was a combination living room/dining area, a space dominated by a stone fireplace. Further upstage, Arcenas placed part of the roof, with a doorway built into it; behind the roof was another section of the exterior house (also with a window) on which was painted a gorgeous blue sky with clouds.
The roof is a key portion in the script, as various important confrontations take place there; the depiction of the sky helped put those confrontations in perspective. But, as Arcenas notes, it's not easy to get a rooftop space into Playwrights Horizons, a theatre with a very low ceiling: "I first designed it so the roof was a downstage piece that came on and off, but Howard [Shalwitz, the director] wanted it to be always there." From that point, the design began to evolve, says Arcenas, who says he kept "throwing out ideas: 'What if the roof was placed high at the back of the stage?' That led to, 'What if the window of the house opened into the sky?'" At the same, the designer was pondering another idea: "I started planking the floor, which led to the idea of planking the entire space. Then I thought, what if we painted the sky onto the planking?" (The sky was inspired by the work of American artist John Stewart Curry, although, the designer adds, the final product is more suggestive of Thomas Hart Benton.) The result is a setting that is quaint, homey, and bizarrely distorted at the same time.
Interestingly, the Freedomland set has an expansive, rambling quality. Arcenas says that, having done several other productions at Playwrights Horizons, he is fascinated with the peculiar stage configuration, which, aside from the low ceiling, includes no wing space on the stage-right side. "So," he says, "I decided to design it so I could expose all of stage left. I thought it would be fun to open up the set." For a prologue set in Sig's loft, he covered up the entire space with a curtain made up of "remnants of dropc loth from Playwrights Horizons, with additional material from Janovic Plaza. It was all painted and sewn haphazardly" to look like an artist's messy dropcloth.
Freedomland was built by Noble Theatrical Scenery, with painting done by Hannah Caulder of Chalkline. Arcenas is particularly happy with her work on the fireplace, which was built of styrofoam and painted to look like stone. The designer also has high praise for the theatre's properties mistress, Jung Kim Griffin, who helped give the farmhouse that lived-in look. The rest of the design team included Candice Donnelly (costumes), Christopher Akerlind (lighting), and Johnna Doty (sound).
Of all the design decisions that Arcenas made on Freedomland, there's one with which he is particularly satisfied. "Should we show the clown paintings?" he says, laughing. The answer, it turns out, was negative. "It would be very difficult to compete with the image of the clown hobos. It was better to leave it to the imagination of the audience." Fans of clown paintings may have been disappointed, but fans of good theatre design were definitely delighted.