‘I’m always so refreshed by shows where my first instinct is to not have a set.”
Strangely, that’s a set designer talking.
Jean Kim recalls during a recent phone interview how Rob Ruggiero, the producing artistic director of TheaterWorks, interviewed her about being the scenic designer for his production of the cosmic romance “Constellations.”
“It started with me admitting that this show doesn’t need so much in the way of visuals,” Kim says. She soon learned that Ruggiero, who has often decided on ultra-realistic sets for the shows he’s directed, was looking to challenge himself this time and do something counterintuitive.
Kim and Ruggiero decided that rather than simply change what was on the familiar TheaterWorks stage area, they would change the stage itself. For a show that references quantum theory, parallel universes and alterations in the time/space continuum, they would offer the audience a whole new perspective.
For this one production, which has been extended to run through Feb. 22, TheaterWorks’ distinctive small thrust stage has disappeared. A circular arena stage has been created instead. The audience surrounds the stage on all sides.
Kim says “I proposed an arena during that interview, but it seemed like something Rob had been thinking about already.”
“It’s exciting, but it scares us to see something so minimal. I love shows that keep me scared until the end.”
“Since the TheaterWorks audience is so loyal,” Kim continues, “I thought that disorienting them would be the greatest challenge that the set design could have for this show. It was hard to reconfigure. We spent most of our budget on trying to reconfigure the stage.”
The designer was so intent on making people think “Wait!? — was this an arena before?” that she adjusted details of the walls of the TheaterWorks building to suggest that the previous stage had never been there.
The result is what Kim calls “focused intimacy.” There are some illuminating stage effects that can be kept as surprises, but the biggest thrill of “Constellations” will likely be the total overhaul of the performance space.
Kim’s last big scenic design in Connecticut was the antithesis of what she’s crafted for “Constellations.” For Evan Yionoulis’ gender-bending production of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2016, Kim created vine-covered castle walls, fountains, stairways and multiple platforms to encompass all the play’s shifting locations. Her set needed to “have a ‘Once upon a time there was a castle’ sense to it, but not specific to any time period,” she explains.
“Constellations” feels a lot closer to a mind-blowing low-cost set Kim concocted at the student-run Yale Cabaret while she was an MFA candidate in the scenic design program at the Yale School of Drama. For Ryan Campbell’s post-modern Joan of Arc drama “A New Saint for a New World,” Kim built a central stage platform with a trapdoor, surrounded by a starscape made up of Christmas tree lights and augmented by text projection and a dark tunnel. Her budget for that expansive universe was just a couple hundred dollars.
“I still enjoy a lot shows that have small budgets,” Kim says, “ones that audiences can still get a gut-wrenching feeling from.”
“Constellations,” she argues, “doesn’t need much. The most difficult thing I found was to not over illustrate the show. It’s set in a concept of the multiverse that scientists are still going back and forth about. But the story is still tangible in our hearts. It’s about relationships, love.”
Nick Payne’s two-character romance has had major productions in London (where its 2012 premiere starred Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins) and New York (with Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson). The play uses scientific theories of time and space as the backdrop for a series of encounters between a man and a woman. A note in the published script explains that “a change in formatting — between normal, bold or italic text — indicates a change in universe.” The play begins with a woman named Marianne saying “Do you know why it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbows? They hold the secret to immortality, so if you could lick them, there’s a chance you’d be able to live forever. But if everyone did it, if everyone could actually lick the tips of their elbows, then there’d be chaos. Because you can’t just go on living and living and living.”
To which a man named Roland responds: “I’m in a relationship.”
After which Marianne says the exact same speech again, in a different universe.
“Constellations” is becoming a popular choice for small theaters nationwide. The TheaterWorks production stars Scott McLean (who co-starred in a different two-actor romantic drama at TheaterWorks, David Greig’s “Midsummer”) as Roland and Allison Pistorius (who appeared in “Constellations” at the Dallas Theater Center in 2016) as Marianne. Ruggiero has added a live musician, Billy Bivona, to the production, performing what is called an “original interactive score.”
Now that “Constellations” has formed, Kim is moving on to fresh challenges. She’s designing a production of Ionesco’s “The Chairs” in New Jersey, then doing Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” at a theater in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where the play happens to be set. “Streetcar” will be directed by former Hartford Stage Associate Artistic Director Maxwell Williams, whom Kim met while she was studying theater in Connecticut.
Kim is still starry-eyed about her TheaterWorks design experience.
“Rob and I clicked well, but I was also so impressed by the family feeling here. It’s refreshing to work where everybody acts like family.”
CONSTELLATIONS by Nick Payne, directed by Rob Ruggiero, runs through Feb. 22 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. $30 to $70, $15 student rush. 860-527-7838 and theaterworkshartford.org.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that TheaterWorks has extended the show by four performances. The added shows are on Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 21 at 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 22 at 7:30. theaterworkshartford.org.