Artists bring hyper-reality to the stage

Designers give new spin to old shows, themes

It’s a challenge every designer eventually faces: How do you give the audience something it already loves — whether it’s a revival of a beloved show, a stage version of a popular movie or a new work about an old problem — and still surprise them? With “Shrek,” “Billy Elliot” and revivals of shows like “Exit the King” and “Mary Stuart,” this season’s design pros had their work cut out for them.

Tim Hatley, the Brit who designed the look of “Shrek the Musical” from top to bottom, had a harder job than most. He didn’t just have to transfer the look of the “Shrek” movie characters to the stage, he had to improve it, approximating textures from fur to feathers to wood to eggshell — textures the DreamWorks computers couldn’t yet approximate in the 2001 film (the animators figured it out for the sequels).

“It became an obsession,” Hatley recalls. “How do you make it look different from the movie?” How do you make cloth look, for example, like wood. Could you paint on fabric? What was durable enough? And, most importantly, how do you make Lord Farquaad four feet tall?

“I’d worked with Chris Seiber on ‘Spamalot,'” Hatley recalls. “When I heard he was playing Farquaad, I thought, ‘This is great news. He’s game for anything, that boy.’ ”

Hatley’s costume for Farquaad requires Seiber to spend the entire evening on his knees. “I wouldn’t say it hurts, but it’s not easy,” Hatley admits. “His knees are in these really hugely padded braces, a little like footballers’ shinpads.”

For “Hair” costumer Michael McDonald, everything in period was an influence. “I wanted to celebrate and honor a generation, which I did by making a costume for every kind of hippie I could think of,” says McDonald. “I wanted people to look at the clothes and say, ‘Oh, my God, I used to wear that.'”

With that in mind, McDonald went to the best place for amusing footage of strangers wearing odd clothes: YouTube. “I used a lot of people’s old 8mm footage of the Monterey Pop fest — things that have been in somebody’s drawer for decades, like a 45-second clip of footage from when they were backstage at Woodstock.”

The wide variety of styles in “Hair” let McDonald dress everybody according to his body type rather than trying to fit a costume to a person.

David Woolard, who costumed the revival of “West Side Story,” says that’s his favorite part of the job, too. “I adore bodies,” says Woolard. “So I really like embracing a body that I have to ‘deal with.’ I love to see the line of the leg and the arm on the dancers.”

YouTube came in handy for the costumes in the hair-band nostalgia musical “Rock of Ages,” too. “Director Kristin Hanggi and I would email musicvideos back and forth,” says designer Gregory Gale (who also worked on the stage version of ’80s-themed pic “The Wedding Singer”). “She’d say, ‘Ooh, look at this video of Pat Benatar doing “Love Is a Battlefield!”‘ We decided it needed to look the way it sounds.”

Anthony Ward, who designed Phyllida Lloyd-helmed “Mary Stuart,” is in love with his show’s timeframe. “I’ve worked with Phyllida for many years, since we were young, and we’d worked on the opera ‘Glorianna’ (also about Queen Elizabeth), so we’re both a little bit mad about the period.” In order to keep things fresh, Ward and Lloyd decided to put the men in suits and the women in opulent not-quite-period dresses. “We got these ideas for the huge, graphic, rich, lush things that really would speak to the royalty of the characters,” Ward says.

As with Ward and Hatley, Dale Ferguson designed both the set and the costumes for “Exit the King,” Ionesco’s tragicomedy about a dying monarch (Geoffrey Rush). “We really did push the envelope with the length of the trains,” says Ferguson, whose costumes include extravagant capes that drag the floor for yards and get in the way of the servant. “Being royal, after all, is dragging around something very elegant that is also a pain in the ass.”

Huge folds of cloth were also part of the set, which included giant drapes and a drop painting. “The production in Australia played two very disparate venues — one very large, modern theater, and the other a tiny space with a very low ceiling,” recalls Ferguson. But with a set made largely out of rigging and cloth (and an echoey concrete tile floor), Ferguson’s design could make pretty much any theater look and sound like a decaying palace.

It’s not easy to distress a set, as Santo Loquasto knows from his mountainous design for “Waiting for Godot.” “We looked at photographs of salt mines,” Loquasto recalls, “and the craters of the moon.”

Michael Yeargan’s design for “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” looks simple at first, but then you start to notice that rock-solid things like tables and stoves are just winking out of existence when you’re not looking. “The play’s boardinghouse is sort of a stopover place,” Yeargan says. “But when things are real, we wanted them to be hyper-real.”

Yeargan creates some quicker-than-the-eye effects, like mysterious twinkling air around the actors in the play’s final scene.

Scott Pask has had two iconic shows to reimagine this year: “Hair” and “Pal Joey.” For “Hair,” Pask says he wanted the show to look like the characters had taken over the Hirschfeld. So he designed a false back wall in front of the real one and knew he had a winner when “one of the crew actually went up the fake access ladder to get into the flies and then realized he’d made a mistake when he got to the top.”

For “Pal Joey,” Pask wanted a contrast between the worlds of charming hustler Joey (Matthew Risch) and charmed socialite Vera (Stockard Channing), so he kept Joey’s club and other environs in “the underworld,” as the designer puts it. “I wanted the whole thing to really feel like the underbelly — the elaborate staircase you have to descend to enter contrasted with the sweep of glass when you enter the penthouse-style apartment.” To get the sense of opulence, Pask based that apartment on architect Pierre Chareau’s Maison de verre (House of Glass).

The glass panels in Mark Wendland’s huge, bare scaffold for the much-nominated “Next to Normal” helped solve an age-old problem: How do you dramatize mental illness onstage?

“We asked the audience to fill in a lot — which, given the mental state of the characters, seemed really fitting,” Wendland says. “We could have made it a more finished, flashier-looking thing. I felt like if the set was a little bit rougher, it would involve the audience more.”

The final result is somewhere between a suburban house and the stage at a U2 concert, with row after row of lights incorporated into the set by Wendland and lighting designer Kevin Adams. “A lot of the show is about light,” Wendland explains. “And not just electricity and electroshock therapy but about banishing darkness and the power of hope.”

An old theme — but one that’s never been visually expressed quite like this.