Realism is for documentaries, not theater

Who goes to the theater for realism? Certainly not the costume and set designers who created Broadway environs this season.

Jonathan Fensom knew that simply re-creating a military trench for WWI combat drama “Journey’s End” wouldn’t simulate a soldier’s dread. He says, “Trying to evoke that horror to a modern audience, who have no idea what trench warfare was like, made me think, ‘How do I communicate how grim it was?'”

His solution is a cramped, low-ceilinged hovel that hangs suspended in a black void. Actors must stoop as they squeeze past one another, and there’s no mistaking the claustrophobic anxiety.

Set designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask also rely on symbolism to create 19th-century Russia in Tom Stoppard’s three-part opus “The Coast of Utopia” (Crowley delivered part one, Pask part two, and they collaborated on part three). The passions of philosophers and poets unfurl before images like a massive piece of blue fabric that represents the sea and a forest of mannequins that signifies the peasant class.

Describing his nonliteral take, Crowley says: “It was a way of putting the production in a sensual frame that would let Tom’s intellect breathe. If you put an entire Russian dacha onstage and then pause while you haul out a realistic living room, you exhaust the audience.”

Crowley — whose other designs this season include sets for “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” plus sets and costumes for “Mary Poppins” — says that for him, effective set design always avoids realism. “I hate it when things are too explicit. The theater events I remember most are the ones that weren’t in someone’s bedroom or bathroom,” he explains.

However, period settings can demand more authentic detail from costumers. For “Utopia,” Catherine Zuber wanted to counter the abstractions of the sets and lighting. “We felt the people needed to be real in an unreal landscape,” she says. “We should have feelings about the characters, and if the costuming becomes too stylized, it can get in the way of our relationship with them.”

Of course, it’s not only the period designs that have meaning. For the contempo tuner “Legally Blonde,” David Rockwell wanted his sets to prove that California girl Elle Woods is a force who alters everything around her, including Harvard Law School. So he made walls that can flip from dark grays to shocking pinks and a dollhouse-style sorority lodge that slides open to reveal the girly fabulousness inside.

“The scenes are assembled and disassembled around the people,” says the set designer, “which makes it a story about characters who are obviously influencing their world.”

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