The possession of a green thumb was not a requirement for working on The Gardens of Anuncia, but when Mark Wendland, the scenic designer of the play, and Graciela Daniele, its director-choreographer, first got together gardening certainly gave them something to bond over.
“For many years,” Wendland told me recently, “I had a garden at a house in upstate New York, near Hudson. Grazie has had a garden at her upstate house for even longer. We’re both very aware of how therapeutic gardening can be. This gave us a shorthand when it came time to figure out how to put our Anuncia garden onstage.”
There was never a question of creating a full garden visually. “As soon as you go to a faux-foliage store and buy your first peony plants,” Wendland said, “you’re on your way to creating the wrong kind of artificial environment,” Wendland said. “An audience looks at that and thinks: Fake. Inauthentic.”
Other kinds of literalism were also not considered. “The play takes place partly in the Argentina of the late 1940s and 1950s,” Wendland explained. “We didn’t want a big radio reminiscent of the era, or a big kitchen table from that time. That would be too limiting.”
Why too limiting? “Because,” replied Wendland, “this is a memory play. The real location of the play is the memory of the Older Anuncia character. And as with most memory plays the audience is constantly being asked to consider whether events in the past occurred, in fact, as we are told they occurred. The audience is asked to imagine a great deal.”
Wendland said the audience is greatly aided in this process by the show’s words, which, like its music, were created by Michael John LaChiusa. “Early in my career,” Wendland related, “I designed a lot of Shakespeare, sometimes for the director Barry Edelstein.” (Wendland received a Tony nomination for his set design on the 2010 TheMerchant of Venice production starring Al Pacino, which Edelstein directed.) “Shakespeare gives you the exact word or two needed to imagine the visual of a scene. Michael John is also very good at that.” It should be noted that Edelstein, currently the artistic director of the Old Globe, in San Diego, is responsible for bringing Wendland together with Daniele and LaChiusa.
Daniele and LaChiusa have done many shows at Lincoln Center Theater; The Gardens of Anuncia is Wendland’s first. But the three already seemed to have developed the kind of familiarity that comes with frequent collaboration. “One of main reasons that I gravitated to theater from a young age” -- fun fact: Wendland attended the same Chicago-suburban high school as Hillary Rodham Clinton – “was the sense it provides of ‘found family.’ It’s a highly collaborative art form and it allows you to develop very close relationships quickly. That has been very important to me.”
If LaChiusa influenced Wendland’s sets through evocative words then Daniele influenced their design in part through her use of staging and choreography. “One of Grazie’s many gifts” Wendland said, “is to create movement, and that’s certainly true in this piece.” He added: “So we didn’t want an overabundance of set: I didn’t want to hamper the actors’ movement. My main job here was to get out of the way.”
Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.