In the Moment: ‘Heisenberg’ at Signature Theatre

With notes at the top of his work Heisenberg, playwright Simon Stephens gives undecorated, clear direction to theater companies for his expectations when producing the play:

The present day. The stage should be as bare as possible. The walls of the theatre should be revealed. The lighting rig should be revealed. If any props are used at all they should be revealed and remain onstage throughout.

Michael Russotto (Alex) in the DC premiere of Heisenberg at Signature Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman.
Michael Russotto (Alex) in the DC premiere of Heisenberg at Signature Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

From these playwright’s notes, Signature Theatre’s director Joe Calarco, set designer Pamela Weiner and lighting designer Andrew Cissna have created a very unpredictable, visually stripped-down theatrical world for an audience to marvel at when taking in Heisenberg.

In this column, I take off into a Heisenberg design element that added immeasurably to the enjoyment of the scrumptiously acted, close-in two-hander that fits into the tight confines of Signature’s ARK like a well-fitting glove. (Read my DCMTA colleague Bob Ashby’s fine review of Heisenberg here).

I found myself smitten with a fabricated smallish, hard-surfaced, but oh-so-flexible inanimate object with its own on-stage, inner being. It became like Godot’s little bare tree; a set element that invigorates characters by its own unpredictable, malleable presence. The dynamics between the characters were unpredictable over the course of the production; at any moment, one of the characters could be assertive and the other more reactive whether through dialogue or silences. The wooden-metal set element mirrored the human characters.

So, let me focus on the particular set element that became the third character in the Signature production. It started out as a bed, and then over the course of 90 minutes had any number of key on-stage lives; from a double bed to two tables; from a bench in a train station to a butcher shop food cooler; from a high table in a bar to somewhere on the edge of a building. The wooden and metal set piece had a life as all of these, with the flexibility of a large Rubik’s cube-like device.

For me, there were few dialogue clues what to expect in an on-coming scene. I just marveled at the theatrical magic. The movable wooden-metal object added a great deal to the overall uncertainty of the characters’ on-stage lives. The object was a visual depiction of living in a slippery life, with little either predictable or solid for most of the production.

I was dizzy with delight as lights dimmed or went black for a big new reveal of what the object had become to underpin the actors. I could only wonder how long the rehearsal process was for the many scene changes that involved reconfiguring the object; sometimes quietly, sometimes with a grunt.

Toward the end of the play, the character Alex Priest (Michael Russotto) says to the other character Georgie Burns (Rachel Zampelli) that things are unpredictable, like trying to describe the melody of a Bach sonata while blindfolded. “Try to predict what will happen to it next. It will take you completely by surprise.” He goes on to say that for him, music’s sly, unpredictable nature is that it “doesn’t exist in the notes,” but in “the spaces between notes.”  That was how the flexible, unpredictable set design element became, sly.

Rachel Zampelli and Michael Russotto in Heisenberg. Photo by Cameron Whitman.
Rachel Zampelli (Georgie) and Michael Russotto (Alex) in Heisenberg. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Yes, indeed. Heisenberg is an accomplished theatrical study about how individuals can interact and have an unexpected impact on one another. Nothing is fixed in the Heisenberg world developed by playwright Stephens.

Signature Theatre’s production of Heisenberg is a glorious experience in creative design without huge expensive design elements. Sort of a 21st century Our Town. That fabricated smallish, folding, flexible, wooden-metal set design object didn’t dissolve. It had its own vital life conveying the unpredictable nature of the human characters in the play. And it all started with the playwright Stephens’s notes about the time and setting.

That smallish hard-surfaced set object helped answer a question posed by the character Georgie to character Alex: “Do you find me exhausting?” Nope, not at all.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Heisenberg plays through November 11, 2018, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington VA. For tickets, call 703-820-9771, or purchase them online.