Set designer Todd Rosenthal and director Anna D. Shapiro have worked together many times since being classmates at the Yale School of Drama. On Broadway, they've done "The Motherf**cker with the Hat" and "August: Osage County" (for which they both won Tonys), and at Steppenwolf in Chicago, where they both have a base, they've collaborated on plays by Bruce Norris, who wrote "Domesticated."
But there's one thing, Rosenthal told me the other day in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, that they'd never done until now: "We'd never done a show in the round." If you are a regular patron of the Mitzi E. Newhouse, where "Domesticated" is in previews, you may be scratching your head. Isn't the Newhouse a three-sided thrust? Normally, yes, but for the Norris drama a bank of seats was added, so audiences now sit on all sides.
"In one sense," Rosenthal said, "the set gives the sense of being in a medical theater, which is appropriate to the fact that Jeff Goldblum's character is a doctor." Rosenthal continued: "In another sense, the bank of seats we added can look to some people like a jury - and the play involves a legal proceeding."
"Being in the round," said Rosenthal, who grew up near Springfield, Massachusetts, "also gives a sense of people watching with prying eyes."
Rosenthal, whose upcoming projects include Nina Raine's "Tribes" at Berkeley Rep and Brecht's "Mother Courage," starring Kathleen Turner, at the Arena Stage, has a resume that's more wide-ranging than those of many set designers. He has designed several seasons of the Big Apple Circus, as well as many museum exhibitions. "The latest one is about Sherlock Holmes," he revealed. "It just opened at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, in Portland."
Sleuthing skills worthy of Sherlock are a regular part of a set designers' work as they hunt down just the right look for a show. Rosenthal, who, like Shapiro, teaches in Northwestern University's theater department, said, "I encourage my students to research their projects at the library, because there are almost always images to be found there that have not yet been digitized."
Rosenthal explained, however, that much of a set designer's work involves looking for inspiration, not to mention furniture, online. "You can find a lot of things on sites like eBay," he said. "But you can also get ideas from images that aren't meant to sell things." He continued: "People document their daily lives and their furniture to an impressive degree." And he added, "I find a lot of stuff on flickr," which is a very popular photo-sharing site.
The challenge for "Domesticated," Rosenthal said, was to find a few things that reflected the world of Norris's story. "Bruce's work," the designer explained, "often involves people who are in transition. So I think for 'Domesticated' we were lucky to find furniture that transitions well between scenes at home and at work."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com