I walked into a tech rehearsal for The Rolling Stone the other afternoon, and I was immediately struck by the beauty of the stage. But the production’s scenic designer, Arnulfo Maldonado, quickly reminded me that in the theater beauty rarely exists only for itself. “At the root of what I do is to serve the storytelling,” he said. “With this play we wanted to have efficient transitions – there’s a sense that a baton must be passed quickly between each scene.”

To do that Maldonado, working closely with the lighting designer Japhy Weideman and the director Saheem Ali, have kept the downstage playing area bare while an 80-foot-wide rear drop – the main scenic element – reflects the moods and layers of each set-up. “The design,” Maldonado said, “can become a very sacred space for the church scenes or a very intimate space for the love scenes.”

Part of the reason for a rather minimal set, Maldonado continued, is to reflect the fact that “even though the play takes place in Uganda we wanted to make the themes universal.”

All the same, for inspiration, Maldonado, who for LCT3 designed Bull in a China Shop, watched documentaries about the play’s historic background: the persecution of gay people in Uganda. And he looked at photographs: “We wanted to get a sense of what a church in Uganda might look like.”

For visual inspiration, Maldonado examined the work of African artists and photographers. One of them was the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui. “A lot of his work,” Maldonado said, “is inspired by found materials, and materials that he had at his disposal that are reminiscent of traditional African textiles.” For one project, Maldonado went on, El Anatsui “took bottle-cap rings and created a large netting with it.”

Maldonado’s own training was less in sculpture or textiles than in other media. “I went to art school to become a painter,” he said. “But I kept gravitating toward theater, because most of my friends were in theater. I started to act and to design shows. These activities unlocked a lot of things for me. Painting felt very isolated. In theater I could do what I loved visually but have a more communal experience.” Among his current projects are Michael R. Jackson’s hit musical A Strange Loop, at Playwrights Horizons until July 28, and Luis Alfaro’s play Mojada, which begins previews at The Public on July 2.

Our conversation returned to The Rolling Stone. Maldonado said: “In my design, backdrop textiles provide a sense of enclosure and heighten the tension in the story between a sense of permeability and a sense of entrapment.”

“The backdrop,” said Maldonado, “essentially has four layers. The first is rope, to evoke chain-link netting. The second is erosion cloth rope, in which I took a piece of silk scarf that in the model I ripped apart to create waves and crowns of thorns. The third layer, which we’re still working on in tech, in the model was a metallic chain mail, with small circular discs. It looks like a hard-rock formation. Fourthly, we’ve used corrugated metal to evoke African textiles and to suggest the moon and the sun.”

All these elements, Maldonado said, are visually striking. “But I try never to lose the sense that part of my job is to be a dramaturg. Everything must serve the storytelling.”

 

Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com