Thursday, November 8, 2007

Here's to Alexander Dodge

When people complain about the ART, they often leaven their criticism with a comment like, "But at least their set designs are incredible." This, of course, is sometimes true, if you buy into the central conceit of ART design - that is, that our current milieu is a kind of empty, desolute wasteland (although this rather more accurately sums up the state of the ART's academic mindset than the culture at large). So I try to remind people that the best theatre design this town has seen over the past few years has come from the drawing board of Alexander Dodge, whose latest set, for Brendan (above), neatly encapsulates its Boston locale in a potent metaphor: the gleaming surface of the Hancock Tower, which, mysteriously, reflects not Copley but Kenmore Square, and opens up into the far more quotidian bars and apartments through which the play's eponymous "rake" makes his progress.

Of course Dodge is picking his own pocket a bit here - he pulled much the same trick in his set for The Rivals a few years back (at left), in which the full sweep of the Crescent at Bath opened like an armoire to reveal various antique interiors. Still, you have to admit - it's a pretty good trick, immediately grounding the audience in both period and metaphor. Dodge (who first hooked up with Nicholas Martin when he was a professor, and Dodge a student, at Bennington College) isn't one to leave his characters floating in existential space: he places them in their physical history, and then offers a witty comment on them as well (ponder for a moment the huge portrait hung in the middle of that dramatic self-portrait, Present Laughter). It's no surprise, then, to learn from his website (where there's a lovely gallery of much of his work) that he grew up in Taliesin West, the son of a student of Frank Lloyd Wright - his sets have a solidity, a reality, that few others do; indeed, he often gives you the impression that a large piece of architecture has somehow landed, like Dorothy's Kansas cabin, on the stage in front of you. Of course to some, such a wonderful trick seems obvious, its heightened realism almost banal; ignore these fools - better yet, pity them, and savor your memories of the wonderful transformation of Captain Shotover's home in Heartbreak House, or the ocean liner drifting across the stage in Love's Labour's Lost. Few designers have enriched the Boston theatre scene more than Alexander Dodge - so it's only fitting the town itself should get the Dodge treatment in Brendan.

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