Most of the buzz surrounding the recent Classic Stage Company production of The Misanthrope centered around the theatrical debut of Uma Thurman, in the role of flirtatious, gossipy Celimene (here named Jennifer). But even more notable was the production's design--one of the wittiest seen Off Broadway this season. Martin Crimp's adaptation resets the action among today's London glitterati, where sex, drugs, and character assassination (not necessarily in that order) are the main entertainments. For this mordant update, scenic designer Narelle Sissons created a perfectly heartless world of reflecting surfaces, consisting of an aluminum diamond-plate floor, two sharply angled walls at stage right and left (one of copper leaf, one of aluminum leaf), with a giant, tilted mirror at the rear.
Noting that Crimp's script gives away no details about the setting, except that we're in Jennifer's hotel room in modern London, the designer probed the text for ideas. "The main idea is that all the set's surfaces are reflective--the characters can see themselves in the floor and in the mirror above and behind them. They get a 360-degree view of themselves." The mirror idea, she adds, tells you something about these trendy, irresponsible fame-seekers: "When you stand in front of a mirror, you see yourself in the moment. The minute you step away, you're gone. That's the idea I was going for."
Picking on a line from the script, unprintable here, about literary theory (just ask yourself what word rhymes with "deconstruct"), Sissons pursued the idea of deconstruction in her design as well: "For instance," she says, "the giant mirror has its original rusted steel frame around it. It has a chic quality in its deconstructed state. Also, all the furniture is deconstructed. There's a dentist's chair that's been pulled apart and reupholstered with fake pony skin. The couch is a psychiatrist's couch so whenever there's a moment when a character starts looking inward, it always takes place on the couch. The little telephone table is made of funnels and steel pipes from one of the Bowery kitchen supply shops; the champagne bucket is made of stainless-steel pieces from the same place."
Everywhere you looked, there were tiny, satirical visual surprises. Thurman made her first appearance standing downstage watering a tiny patch of grass. A towering glass sculpture was revealed to be nothing but cocktail tumblers. The stage left well featured little fleur-de-lis (for Moliere) and martini glasses (for modern decadence), all of which were backlit. "We actually nicknamed the hotel room 'The Versailles,' because we thought it had a touch of the baroque," Sissons says.
Things got really baroque in the final scene, which took place at party with a 17th-century theme. Servants hung chandeliers on the sides of the walls, and scattered little candles all over the stage. "The candles," Sissons explains, "are votives stuck to kitchen pans, muffin trays--there's also a cake plate, and a sauce dish divided into three sections. It's as if they've stolen all these pieces from the hotel's kitchen to make a party." A large period painting--"Le bat" by Hugh Taraval--showing a man adoring a woman, was brought onstage sideways, a caustic comment on leading man Alceste (Roger Rees) and his voyeuristic obsession with Jennifer.
Naturally, the implementation of Sissons' design required considerable ingenuity, given the production's typically low budget. "The mirror frame was given to us at a very low rate by a construction company," she says; "we had it glazed and hung." The mirror was made of pieces of mirrored Plexiglas secured to a solid backing. "Everything else was just a matter of the director and me looking for the right materials," she adds. "We went to a metal shop in Queens [Typin], an extraordinary warehouse filled with every type of sheet metal."
The rest of the design team worked in unison on the production, directed by Barry Edelstein. Stephen Strawbridge's lighting blended superbly with the set's metallic surfaces, creating startling shifts of mood by switching from highly colored looks to subtle white light. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes provided witty commentary on the fashions of two centuries, especially in the final baroque party sequence (Thurman appeared in 17th-century style dress with images of eyes and lips all over the skirt). Darron L. West's sound design provided a strong, clear setting both for Michael Torke's incidental music and the vocalizations of the Pet Shop Boys. All four designers helped to build a bridge between neo-classic France and post-modern London. Moliere never seemed so modern; after this production, don't be surprised if CAA tries to sign him up to a three-picture deal. The Misanthrope ran at CSC through March 7.