Admissions begins previews in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater this Thursday, so we are still at the point of not wanting to reveal too many details about the play, by Joshua Harmon, and the production, by Daniel Aukin. What I can say about the story is that it takes place in an admissions office of a New England prep school and in the house of the school’s admissions officer. How did Riccardo Hernandez, the production’s set designer, approach these locations?
“We aren’t creating an abstracted space,” Hernandez told me the other day, “but one in which reality is stretched to its limit. You have two entrances to the space, and there’s a loneliness too them: a Hopper quality.” He added: “We decided not to have scene changes, so the story really flows.”
I’m not going to give away the most dramatic element of the set design, except to say that it provides the slash of a diagonal into the Newhouse. “It’s an aggressive line, but helps maintain the tension of the characters,” Hernandez said. He went on to relate the diagonal to an element present in most productions of Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor.
Lucia, as it happens, was the first professional opera Hernandez saw. “I was 6 or 7 years old, and my family had just moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. My father was an opera singer, and he had already started taking me regularly to productions at the Teatro Colon” – the city’s grand opera house. Hernandez and his father didn’t so much attend the Colon as live at the Colon. “If there was a new production of La Boheme,” he explained, “we didn’t just go to the opening. We went to EVERY performance.”
But back to Lucia. Hernandez said: “That production was designed by Ming Cho Lee, who was my teacher and mentor at Yale, when I went there to study design. He has just retired from teaching” – at the age of 87 – “and I recently reminded him about that Lucia. I told him that his design for that opera started the whole thing for me.”
Hernandez thought he would design primarily for opera, but at Yale he met the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, a relationship that led him to George C. Wolfe, then the artistic director of the Public Theatre, for which Hernandez has designed more than 30 shows, including Parks’s Topdog/Underdog. Last year, Hernandez received an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Scenic Design, a reflection of his varied and distinguished career: at least 250 productions, including the musical Parade at LCT’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Eight years after leaving Yale, Hernandez finally began working regularly in opera. He has designed productions throughout the United States and Europe, including La Traviata, Don Giovanni – and Lucia. He dreams of designing a production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. “My father was a maniac for Wagner,” Hernandez said, “and I was named after him.”
Hernandez has not shed his love for designing productions of new plays. “I’m 52, but I love working with someone younger, like Josh Harmon. He has a spitfire quality and really understands how people talk today.” As for Admissions' director, Aukin, Hernandez said: “It’s our first collaboration. What a revelation to work with such a talented, rigorous director. He is a master of the most intimate and delicate ways of having characters talk to each other.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.