Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal’s set for Steppenwolf’s The Motherfucker with the Hat

The Tony winner revisits his deceptively complex Broadway design for Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play.

Photograph: Joel MoormanRehearsals for The Motherfucker with the Hat at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

“This is technically the most complicated show Steppenwolf has ever done,” Todd Rosenthal says of The Motherfucker with the Hat. “The production photos for this show? People don’t understand. It’s all about the transitions and how it moves.”

For the Chicago premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play, Rosenthal, 47, brings his Tony-nominated set design to the Steppenwolf stage. The project reunites him with frequent collaborator and Northwestern University colleague Anna D. Shapiro, the director of Motherfucker’s 2011 Broadway debut. The dark urban comedy concerns a former drug dealer, his cheating girlfriend and an incriminating headpiece.

“The thing about Stephen’s play is that even though it’s kind of rough, there’s a slickness. There’s a sense of street poetry,” Rosenthal says in Steppenwolf’s administrative offices. “So we wanted those transitions to feel like a game of three-card monte. Almost like a con: You thought I was going to do this, but I did this. And that’s very expensive. It’s probably the most expensive shitty motel room in the American theater.” The effect is captured through automation: Walls pull away, and furniture rotates up from beneath the stage.

Using a distinct image such as three-card monte as inspiration for his design is a common starting point for Rosenthal, who takes a fresh perspective on even the most nondescript interiors. “It needs to have a robust point of view,” Rosenthal says, explaining his design philosophy. “Even if it’s just an interior, there needs to be some angle, something that makes it unique. I’m interested in spaces that are very specific—which is not to say that I want them to be absolutely realistic, but they need to have a sense that these particular characters inhabit this particular world.”

Inhabited aptly describes Rosenthal’s Tony-winning, three-story set design for August: Osage County. Because playwright Tracy Letts was continuing to revise his script, Rosenthal had just two weeks to devise the Weston family’s Oklahoma home. “Sometimes the plays that you design in a week, two weeks, are better because you don’t have time to second-guess your instincts.”

Those two weeks on August led to Rosenthal becoming the only American to win the U.K.’s Olivier Award for design, after Steppenwolf’s production traveled to London’s National Theatre. For Rosenthal, whose mother has organized theater trips to London since his childhood years in Massachusetts, it was the ultimate honor.

Yet Rosenthal considers his role as teacher the most rewarding part of his career. “I think we have a responsibility to pass on this craft, because there are elements that are dying,” the Yale alum says. “Especially the handcraft in this business. I don’t condemn the computer, but I think there’s a level of hands-on craft that still needs to be maintained because it is the signature of the artist.”

Beyond his faculty position at Northwestern, Rosenthal mentors young designers who visit the studio he shares with Kevin Depinet, his former assistant, and Jack Magaw. The sets crafted by this cooperative community can be seen on stages across the city. “When I first came to Chicago,” Rosenthal says, “Goodman, Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare were all hiring people from New York. Now they hire locally.”

The Motherfucker with the Hat begins previews Friday 28 and opens Sunday 6.

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