He is, as playwright Bruce Norris told me — they've worked together often, recently on "Clybourne Park" and "A Parallelogram," which Rosenthal will design again in summer at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles — "the kind of guy who does not want you to think he's an artist, just a hired hand from 'This Old House' or something, mistakenly asked to design a set but miraculously attuned to the visual meaning of what an audience sees."
At his studio, Rosenthal showed me a diorama of a stage he is designing for an upcoming show from British actor Mark Rylance to open this spring at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis — an ice-fishing shack at the edge of a frozen lake, with a touch of apocalyptic desolation. He also showed me sketches of an "Of Mice and Men" Broadway production with Willem Dafoe that fell through (but might be revived with Mark Ruffalo and John C. Reilly). It has farm equipment and clanging chains dangling from rafters, a backdrop that slowly closes behind the actors, creating a sunset, "to show their window of opportunity is closing."
Susan Booth, artistic director of the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta (and former director of new play development at Goodman), told me that when Rosenthal designed the Alliance's production of "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," written by Stephen King and John Mellencamp: "Todd created this soulless limbo that was gray and realistic looked at one way, or the gray inside your head when looked at another. T. Bone Burnett (the show's music director) looked at it and said, 'A swamp!' He meant literally and figuratively."
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Still, Shapiro said: "It doesn't really matter if an audience gets these meanings directly, only that the idea is sound. For 'Motherf***er,' Todd communicated emotionally that no matter how many times the rooms or walls change, these characters will always be back in the same places. Just as the house in 'Osage County'" — she directed both shows — "is literally a family structure that reflects, well, a family structure."
Rosenthal walked me around the Steppenwolf set of "Motherf***er." (The show runs through March 3.) He told me the Steppenwolf version of the set, only slightly different from the set used on Broadway, is the most expensive, sophisticated set Steppenwolf ever built. (Steppenwolf confirmed it was the toughest, most complex set the company ever attempted but would not divulge the cost.)
But as for the billboard, he told me it once had a faded picture on it; this was back when he first designed the set. "But Scott Rudin (the movie and theater producer, who launched the show in New York) told me it looked 'too resolved.' So I began tearing away pieces of the image until I was left with just this, the frame."
Which is actually aluminum.
"But why is it so big?" I asked.
"Because it makes people feel small," he said.