A good play probably can't be ruined by a mediocre set or ugly costumes. But a brilliant designer can transform a marginal production into a spectacle in which the visual excitement enriches the script and energizes the performances.
Two plays currently running are dazzling examples of this: The Scarecrow, at the Center Theater, and the Bailiwick Repertory's production of Animal Farm. Given their scripts, both could easily be crashing bores. Both are produced under painfully meager budgets. And yet both are delightful to look at, and because they are they command attention and arouse interest. Good-looking people generally seem more intelligent and agreeable than the unattractive, and maybe there's some of that operating here. All I know is I went to these two plays expecting little, and ended up having a wonderful time.
In fact, I found Animal Farm to be downright illuminating. I had read the book, and I thought I knew all about George Orwell's staunch opposition to Stalinism. I wasn't expecting to find anything new in this allegory.
But wit and humor cause our emotional defenses to drop, allowing horror to penetrate the hard shell of indifference. The costumes for Bailiwick's production of Animal Farm are relentlessly clever. I caught myself several times laughing at the mere sight of the play's humanoid pigs, horses, sheep, goats, dogs, cats, and chickens (especially those chickens operated by Kellie Morin, whose voice takes on a hilarious cluck).
While I was distracted by these visual jokes, the horror of Stalinist Russia was seeping in. Finally it exploded into consciousness, and I understood why the Russkies screamed when Britain's National Theatre brought this musical to an international festival in Washington, D.C., in 1986.
Anyway, about the costumes: They were designed by Steve Pickering and "engineered" by Faye Fisher-Ward. What makes them particularly amazing is their creators' lack of experience. This is Pickering's debut as a designer; normally he is an actor (he appeared in Bailiwick's outstanding production of Execution of Justice last season). Fisher-Ward is a free-lance designer, but her program bio notes that this is her "trial by fire" as a construction engineer.
They seem to have relied on ingenuity instead of standard design principles. The front legs of the horses, for example, are crutches, but the bottom portion of each is hinged, so when the actors walk, the legs bend in a surprisingly natural way. Add to that a few pieces of unbraided hemp rope for a tail and an elongated face mask suggesting the muzzle, and the horse costumes become entertaining in themselves. Same with the others. Men's ties, both coiled and draped, serve as sheep's fleece and goats' hair. The hens are puppets on sticks. The dogs wear leather head masks with glowing eyes, and one actor manipulates a rat that zooms around on wheels made out of rotary-saw blades.
The actors mimic the movements of the animals they portray, but director David Zak never lets them get carried away with their cuteness. In fact, Tina Thuerwachter's performance as Napoleon the pig, the Stalin surrogate who takes over the barnyard, is effective because she remains so human with her phony smile and smug demeanor.
I suspect this adaptation would seem somber and tedious as a simple staged reading. But dressed up in these clever rags, with a simple piano to accompany the songs, Animal Farm deftly traces the glorious ideals of the Russian Revolution as they are shot down by greed, ambition, envy, and sheer pigheadedness. And the animals serve as surprisingly effective vehicles for conveying these all-too-human traits.
The Center Theater's production of The Scarecrow, on the other hand, transforms the entire cast into cartoon characters, to set them apart from the title character's developing humanity.
The Scarecrow, written in 1908 by Percy MacKaye, is a reworking of Nathaniel Hawthorne's last short story, "Feathertop: A Moralized Legend," published in 1852. In both, a female blacksmith with supernatural powers brings a scarecrow to life, and sends him into town to woo the daughter of a respectable judge. Hawthorne seems to be making fun of the artist, who'll transform anything, even a bag of straw topped with a jack-o'-lantern, into a living, breathing creature. But MacKaye's version seems to be ridiculing the work of the Ultimate Creator Himself, who does the same with humans. In the play, the scarecrow, decked out like a nobleman and with manners to match, discovers his true identity by looking into a magic mirror, and his despair echoes the alienation of modern man:
"Why, God . . . dost Thou dwell in this thing? Is it Thou that peerest forth at me--from me . . . ? I have thrust forth mine arm to wear Thy shield forever--and lo! for my shield Thou reachest me--a mirror, and whisperest: 'Know thyself! Thou art--a scarecrow: a tinkling clod, a rigmarole of dust, a lump of ordure, contemptible, superfluous, inane!' And with such scarecrows Thou dost people a planet!"
Although MacKaye was fairly prolific, The Scarecrow is the only play of his still produced from time to time, and even this one seems terribly quaint and old-fashioned. In a run-of-the-mill production, the arcane dialogue would certainly anesthetize large portions of the audience.
But Rob Hamilton, who designed the set, the costumes, and the masks, prevents that through the sheer ingenuity of his creations. The most conspicuous are the masks. Every character wears a half mask that extends from the upper lip to the hairline. The masks are realistic, but with slightly cartoonish touches. Dickon, the evil spirit who serves the old blacksmith, has the horns of a devil in the early scenes, but when he becomes the scarecrow's escort in town, his face becomes more human, with a single slyly arched eyebrow suggesting the mischief and malevolence within him. Rachel Merton's mask includes a shapely upper lip that makes her look like the aggrieved heroine of a silent motion picture melodrama. And the scarecrow, who becomes Lord Ravensbane, becomes more human looking as the play progresses; the enormous jack-o'-lantern head he starts with gets smaller every time he makes an entrance. Eventually a human nose begins to protrude, and the mask takes on a human shape. Finally, when Lord Ravensbane becomes fully human under the influence of Rachel's love, the mask comes off entirely.
Hamilton has also designed a clever set that facilitates baffling magic tricks, including one of the fastest set changes I've ever witnessed. There's a magic mirror that shows people as they really are, and a harpsichord that emits strobe flashes while images of crows suddenly cover the walls.
It's easy to overlook the performances when the actors are repeatedly upstaged by the designer, but Kathy Scambiatterra strikes a fine balance as Rachel Merton, allowing for a certain archness in her character's behavior, but never resorting to caricature. John Mossman, as Dickon, is a bit too manic in the early scenes, but settles into a wonderfully snide, sneering companion to Lord Ravensbane. And R.J. Coleman, as Ravensbane, manages to project some dignity and authority even though he performs for most of the play with his head in a pumpkin.
The masks, the costumes, and the set keep the audience alert and engaged through the tedious passages. Again, a staged reading of this play would be a powerful soporific; but when dressed up by Hamilton it commands attention, and actually seems to have something to say.