Surrealism on Stage: Behind the Doors at Sarah Ruhl’s ‘Melancholy Play’ at Constellation Theatre

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Imagine a cluster of windows without walls, set against a backdrop of doors. And imagine a stage with a floor whose texture resembles sand.

Mary Myers and Lilian Oben in Constellation Theatre's production of Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
Mary Myers and Lilian Oben in Constellation Theatre’s production of Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Those are just a few of the images—improbable as they sound—that confront audiences as they settle in for Melancholy Play, an early work by feminist playwright Sarah Ruhl which is now in the final week of its DC debut at Constellation Theatre.

The play, as pointed out elsewhere (click here for the DC Metro Theater Arts review), is about a young woman named Tilly whose sadness is so seductive that everyone she meets falls in love with her on the spot. But when Tilly cheers up, her lovers lose interest.

If that sounds like the opposite of reality—or reality as so often defined—that’s because it is.

For Jonathan Dahm Robertson, the 26-year-old set designer who joined the Constellation team in April of this year, it’s the very duality of the play—and the absurdity of its premise—that make it both comic and ultimately satisfying.

For inspiration, Robertson—who started out as an art student—turned immediately toward surrealism, focusing specifically on the work of Belgian-born Rene Magritte and the American Edward Hopper.

“I was looking for something that would capture the sense of artifice that’s implicit in the play,” he said, pointing out that both artists—Magritte in 1939 and Hopper a bit earlier—had painted images of doors and windows opening onto beaches or otherwise empty spaces.

Robertson chose Magritte’s work because of its sense of humor and Hopper’s for its inherent drama. Constellation’s Artistic Associate, Nick Martin, who directed the play, urged him to take the images even farther.

The end result is a stage dominated by a cluster of windows. Frames without glass, they overlap in mid-air and seem to float. The background is made of doors. The result is a set that is both fanciful and unsettling.

L-R: Lilian Oben, Christian Montgomery, and John Austin in Constellation Theatre's production of Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
L-R: Lilian Oben, Christian Montgomery, and John Austin in Constellation Theatre’s production of Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Which is exactly what the playwright, Sarah Ruhl, intended.

In fact, Ruhl—a Pulitzer Prize finalist (for In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play), and a Helen Hayes Award winner (Dead Man’s Cell Phone)—originally subtitled the play “a contemporary farce,” invoking images of characters popping in and out of bedroom doors.

In her notes, written in 2002, she encourages actors to “climb in and out of windows and throw open balconies.”

Robertson’s set facilitates all that coming and going–which makes it all the more surprising to learn that the designer is a relative newcomer to professional theater. A recent graduate of the University of North Carolina, he arrived in DC in 2015, having landed a fellowship at the Kennedy Center which allowed him to work as a resident assistant at Theater J.

Growing up in Germany, just outside Frankfurt—where his mother was a singer and his father an American conductor—the designer always felt an affinity for the arts. When his parents divorced, he moved to New York and studied drawing and painting at the Horace Mann School. But it was not until he joined a theater program in high school that he discovered that the visual arts can have a place in drama.

“I consider myself a work in progress,” he concluded. “So far, all my professional work has been in DC. But I’m a big fan of this city. It’s a vibrant theater community. And I love the culture.”

Judging by the raves at Constellation this week, the culture reciprocates.

 Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes, with no intermission.

Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce is produced by the Constellation Theatre Company, located inside the Source Theatre at 1835 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC. The show runs through September 2. For tickets, call (202) 204-7741 or purchase online.

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