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Inside the startling design of Heisenberg
Heisenberg doesn't start like a typical show, with the lights going down (or the curtain coming up) to indicate the performance has begun. Instead, Simon Stephens' play, which is now on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, slides quietly into the room. While a stage manager in a headset gives a speech about turning off cell phones, actors Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt emerge from the wings, moving tables and chairs into position for the first scene. Even though they get some entrance applause – Parker is a star, after all – they don't acknowledge it. They just go about their business.
And when the stage manager leaves – bang – the performers become Georgie and Alex, a pair of strangers in a London train station who have a surprising, romantic adventure. Just like that, we go from "waiting for the show" to "immersed in the show."
It's a disorienting transition, and that's the point. After all, the title Heisenberg naturally evokes ideas of uncertainty, and so does the script. From scene to scene, both Georgie and Alex seem startled by what they're doing – visiting each other at work, speaking honestly about private quirks, impulsively going on an international voyage to right old wrongs. It only makes sense that the production would be startling as well.
That explains the unusual seating. For this production, which runs through December 11, the Friedman resembles a tennis court. Half the audience sits in seats on the floor, and the other half sits on the stage, with the play unfolding on a long, narrow space between the two groups. No matter where you sit, you can always see other spectators. We don't get the option of sinking into the dark, unobserved as we watch the characters fall in love.
"The play is a surprise, and the presentation style is a surprise," says set designer Mark Wendland. He's been working on Heisenberg since the spring of last year, when it premiered Off Broadway at MTC's Stage II. That version also used tennis-court seating (or "traverse staging," if you will), and both he and director Mark Brokaw discovered how powerful it could be.
"We liked, in the original production, that when the audience walked in and there was no scenery – just two tables and two chairs and a big empty space – they immediately did not know what to expect," Wendland recalls. "With that and the seating configuration being so unusual, there was an anticipation of, 'What is this going to be?'"
But this approach does more than create a mood. It also gives the actors the freedom to move around. If the entire audience were in front of them, they would need to cheat out so they could always be seen, which would seem stage-y and awkward. With patrons on both sides, Parker and Arndt can interact more naturally, knowing that someone can always see them. Sure, they might have their backs to a group of audience members for a while, but it won't be long before they turn to those people and show their faces.
This adds intimacy to our experience. As Wendland says, "If you can't see Denis' face, if you see his back while Mary-Louise is talking but you see her face, then you're almost seeing from his perspective. That's more engaging, because you really start to see the action through the eyes of the scene partners."
Despite these benefits, Wendland wasn't sure he would recreate this design when the show transferred to Broadway. He and Brokaw had several conversations about restaging the show in a traditional proscenium style. "But the thing that we kept coming back to was that we hated the idea of changing the blocking so much," he says. "If we did a whole two-person play of them just facing each other, it would only be profiles for the whole evening."
Similarly, the remount has kept the design incredibly spare. The chairs and tables that the actors push around are the only set pieces. There are no props to let us know we've moved from one space to another, and there are minimal costume changes. "The language is the most important thing in the piece, and you don't want to encumber that," Wendland says, and Stephens' script indeed creates such a vivid portrait that extra design elements might seem extraneous. As Wendland notes, "You don't need to help the audience. The language does it all."
Follow Stages editor Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top photo – featuring Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker – by Joan Marcus. 3D rendering of Mark Wendland's design created by David Swayze.
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