That's what the guy who sat behind me said as I settled into a matinee performance of "The Motherf***er With the Hat" at the Steppenwolf Theatre recently: "Whoa, will you look at that? That is something. That is large. I wonder what that'll do? Or does it do anything? How do you think they got it in here? That's got to be real." He kept on like that for a while, until I turned and shot him the stink eye. But I knew what he meant.
I thought it too. And the play hadn't even begun.
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Let me explain:
There's a billboard in the play, and this thing is solid-looking, believable, large — 36 feet tall, 24 feet wide. The play, by Stephen Adly Guirgis, is set in a series of New York apartments. Stage mechanics cycle in segments of the various rooms: Couches disappear into the stage, replaced by different, more socioeconomically appropriate couches. It's something of a cross between a puzzle and a theatrical Lazy Susan — set design as Rubik's Cube.
Two elements, however, never budge: On the left, a tenement staircase climbs to nowhere, and, on the right, this steel-looking billboard, built to scale, devoid of an ad and looming a bit, as if it might topple any second.
It may not be as spectacular as the helicopter in "Miss Saigon" or as startling as the chandelier that swings out over the audience in "Phantom of the Opera," but, man, I love that "Motherf***er" billboard. "That billboard," said Kevin Depinet, the Evanston-based designer of the recent "Iceman Cometh" set at the Goodman Theatre and "Detroit" at Steppenwolf, "I love that billboard too. It's real, yet abstract in quiet, subtle ways. It's surreal, yet it reminds you this is a fragile world. That is a fine example of Todd's talent."
As in Todd Rosenthal.
Rosenthal is arguably Chicago's pre-eminent set designer. He is the guy behind the "Motherf***er" set design (which originated on Broadway, the design nominated for a 2011 Tony Award); the guy behind the set of the Goodman's annual "A Christmas Carol" productions; the guy behind the towering family home in "August: Osage County" (for which he won a 2008 Tony Award for best scenic design); the guy behind the Chicago home that aged 50 years in "Clybourne Park"; and the guy behind those striking, stacked miniature rooms (picture the opening credits of "The Brady Bunch," only arty) in Steppenwolf's "Man From Nebraska."
I could go on and on.
"I see him as certainly the most important designer in Chicago, perhaps nationally too," said Linda Buchanan, head of the scenic design department at DePaul University. "I think of Todd as being like his sets: big, muscular, clean, smart. Although one way his work is not like him: Todd is funny, his sets are not."
No, they are not.
By chance, a month before I became interested in understanding why that billboard made me feel the way it did, why I had thought about it as much as the play itself, I had a similar reaction at another Rosenthal-designed show, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" on Broadway. Rosenthal's set, which was quite a bit different and smaller when the production debuted last year at Steppenwolf, came off like the last word in academic clutter, physically and spiritually. Picture a creaky New England home overstuffed with literature, stacks of test papers that have likely been in the same place as long as the end tables, books stuffed into fireplaces, under chairs, windowsills, papers collapsing across floors, creating tiny landfills. When I think of the show, as much as I think of Tracy Letts and Amy Morton as George and Martha, I think of those papers.
Why is that?
Admittedly — though I am not the most sophisticated theatergoer nor the least — it seemed crushingly obvious when I asked theater people why Rosenthal's sets are so moving and heard, again and again, "Todd knows how to use a set to help tell a story and serve the material." But isn't that the job? The bare minimum a set designer does to earn a paycheck? By laying out the pitfalls, Al Franklin, longtime production manager at Steppenwolf, explained better than anyone: A good set designer "understands most of the time a set is not a character and cannot outshine what a playwright and director are trying to do, yet often they will still want that set to be shiny, memorable and emotional. A great set designer finds that balance in a creative way."
An even better way to grasp this is to visit Rosenthal's studio, which is not open to the public but should be. It's in Evanston. He shares it with Depinet and designer Jack Magaw — at any given time a good chunk of the sets on Chicago stages are coming from this small loft on Sherman Avenue, itself crammed with shoe box-size dioramas of theater stages that have been seen across the country. (Rosenthal also designed sets for the Big Apple Circus and, with Depinet, a touring "MythBusters" museum exhibit.)
Rosenthal picked up a diorama of the Broadway "Virginia Woolf" set and quickly got to the heart of why I loved it: "We wanted this house to look like Martha has the money, but her husband has marked his territory over time. You should get that without hearing it. Over the years, the life has been sucked out. So it was once an impressive New England house and still is perhaps, but it's kind of sad now. The clutter is the way their brains work. The fireplace is stuffed with books because George, at least, prefers knowledge over warmth."
Rosenthal is 6 feet 4 inches tall. He is 48 and has graying curly hair and the appearance of a lumberjack carpenter, which he was earlier in his career (a carpenter, not a lumberjack). He grew up in Massachusetts, studied set design with famed designer Ming Cho Lee at Yale, where he met Anna Shapiro, the Steppenwolf director and actress with whom he often works. They also both teach in Northwestern University's theater department, and their pull is pervasive: Set designer Courtney O'Neill, a frequent Hypocrites' designer (she did the company's celebrated revival of "Our Town"), told me Rosenthal was the reason she attended Northwestern, noting he's become the counterpoint to the other sought-after local, Walt Spangler, who once lifted a house off the Goodman stage for "Desire Under the Elms."
"Todd is as rooted in realism," O'Neill said, "as Walt is spectacularly off-the-wall."
Indeed, Rosenthal replies to questions with no extraneous words, pretense or flourish.