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Set and costume designer Arnulfo Maldonado is having a major Off-Broadway moment
An African-American woman is working in her kitchen. She's wearing heels; her hair is elegantly coiffed. The furniture and appliances indicate we're in the mid-20th century. This feels like a real place, with its floral-patterned wallpaper, Formica table and white linoleum. But where the kitchen floor ends, the earth seems to fall away. This woman in her cozy home is really at the edge of a cliff, and the sky above her is blood red and roiled with ominous storm clouds.
This is Arnulfo Maldonado's striking set for Fireflies, the world-premiere drama by Donja R. Love running at Atlantic Theater Company. The second installment in the dramatist's Love* Plays trilogy, Fireflies centers on Olivia (DeWanda Wise), the wife and chief speechwriter of Charles (Khris Davis), a prominent activist minister at the height of the civil rights movement. "The kitchen is her safe haven," says Maldonado. "But it can also become a place of violence and danger."
Fireflies marks the designer's fifth collaboration with director Saheem Ali -- the two most recently worked together on Sugar in Our Wounds, the first play in Love's trilogy, which ran at Manhattan Theatre Club over the summer. "We both have a very similar approach," Maldonado says. "It's rooted in the writing and the dramaturgy."
For these productions, Maldonado's set designs mixed verisimilitude with powerful symbolic elements. "Donja's writing is so rich with visuals," he says, noting that both plays feature an "environmental character that's very much a part of the storytelling." In Sugar, it's a huge, ancient tree that dominates the stage; in Fireflies, it's the flaming horizon. "Once I started looking at Fireflies, it did feel important to have the sky surrounding Olivia at all times," he says. We can never forget that a firestorm is about to engulf this couple and their community.
Fireflies is one of three shows currently running Off-Broadway featuring Maldonado's work: He also designed the set for Playwrights Horizons' I Was Most Alive with You, and he created the costumes for India Pale Ale at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage I. Both shows presented unique challenges he was eager to help solve.
I Was Most Alive with You features two casts performing simultaneously, one in spoken English, the other in American Sign Language. "It was important to separate these bodies," Maldonado says. "In the original production [at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, which he was not involved in], they weren't really very separated and it became a little difficult to follow." Maldonado's solution was to build a two-tiered set, so the signing cast members are above the speaking ones, giving them the aura of spirits hovering over the action.
For India Pale Ale, Maldonado was tasked with crafting costumes that reflect the clash between tradition and modernity as a tight-knit Punjabi community in Wisconsin gathers for a wedding. For scenes set in a gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, the characters cover their heads and remove their shoes. "So as opposed to focusing on their footwear, we're focusing on how to tell stories with socks," Maldonado says.
A graduate of the NYU Tisch Department of Design for Stage and Film, Maldonado only has two Broadway credits as an assistant scenic designer. But over the past three years he's been in tremendous demand Off-Broadway at some of the most prestigious nonprofits in the city, including Lincoln Center, Classic Stage Company and MCC Theater, which is reusing his set from last season for the encore run of School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play starting later this month. Maldonado has also forged close artistic relationships with many prolific directors, such as Lee Sunday Evans, Will Davis and Ken Rus Schmoll, who use him again and again.
While he hesitates to ascribe an adjective to his signature style, he concedes that his work is often described as "minimal," and that he's a fan of action design, which requires that everything onstage be physically or psychologically necessary. He also acknowledges that, regardless of what type of production he's working on or whether he's making sets or costumes, his aim is always the same. "For me, it's about figuring out what's the most essential thing and then stripping away what isn't," he says. "That is ultimately the goal, to not get in the way of the show."
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: DeWanda Wise and Khris Davis in Fireflies. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.