I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the theatrical curtain.
You know, the classic red velvet drapery that conceals the stage from the audience before the show? Then, after the show, ceremonially falls to both signal an end of the play and an end of that imaginary world?
Ivo Van Hove and his brilliant set and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld made me long for the narrative clarity and imaginative possibilities of that piece of theatrical fabric. To be sure, their curtain is more like a Donald Judd sculpture paired with the light sculptures of a lesser James Turrell. It’s actually a fabric curtain but stretched over a frame to become a solid form.
Its minimalism and form are striking. Rather than a single flat curtain, the opening scenic image for the production of “A View From the Bridge,” which just opened at the Ahmanson is a massive grey cube resting on a short foundation of clear glass. It’s as if this massive box were floating on a thin sliver of air. It shrouds and obscures the three-sided stage from the audience. It extends from the stage floor up to the grid and has the feel of a monolith.
As the play begins, the glass begins to glow a warm, eery orange and if you’re seated in the right place (which by the way is critical for this show, spring for either front of the orchestra tickets or the on stage seats) you’ll notice the bare feet and shins of several actors standing onstage. It’s all you’ll see of them at first, their bodies still hidden from view by this three-sided “curtain” of a cube.
Then slowly, monumentally, the “curtain” begins to rise, ever so slowly revealing the actors – bare chested, bathed in orange light with a haze looming ominously around them. The movement is akin to the tempo with which your eyes adjust to a dark room as detail and meaning slowly emerge from the blackness. It’s operatic and sculptural as much as it is theatrical – and it’s certainly theatrical.
This floating, three sided “box” continues to ascend until it forms a kind of ceiling or barrier maybe 25 feet above the stage. It both defines the edges of the arena and also cunningly obscures the theatrical lighting above, so the experience of the stage is one of a glowing presence. The set has to it a presence of its own. The experience is a bit like the wonder, or horror, when a magical box is opened, Pandora-like, to reveal its contents.
Then, of course, given the narrative power and expressive possibilities of this “opening,” you know, instinctively, that it must eventually close. This set piece which ushered us into the world must also bring it to a close.
Without giving anything away, its ending doesn’t disappoint. This formal journey is a satisfying one. It’s something missing from LA’s theaters, which lack either the architecture or have a more modern aesthetic that eschews such formality and division between audience and art.
Typically, my heart runs with this exposed, open theater but Ivo Van Hove made me have second thoughts. The show reminded me that a curtain need not be gilt red to bring the the simple pleasure of revelation and conclusion. I think I just might long for the curtains to come back to our theaters.