By LIZZIE SIMON
Each week in Curtain Raisers, we invite a local theater artist to attend a show of his or her choosing and discuss the results. On Friday the scenic designer Neil Patel opted to see Amy Herzog's "The Great God Pan," directed by Carolyn Cantor at Playwrights Horizons. A two-time Obie Award winner, Mr. Patel's credits include "Side Man" and "Dinner with Friends." Currently his scenic design can be seen in David Henry Hwang's "Golden Child" and Quiara Alegria Hudes's 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning play "Water by the Spoonful." Next up for Mr. Patel: Lanford Wilson's "The Mound Builders," directed by Jo Bonney, and Craig Lucas's "The Lying Lesson," directed by Pam MacKinnon.
Scenic design is not unlike fashion design, said Mr. Patel. "It's very much of its time."
Take "The Great God Pan," Amy Herzog's new play about a 32-year-old man (Jeremy Strong) who learns that he may have been molested by a neighbor when he was 4 years old.
The set is a massive box-like structure with a digital image of a forest printed onto it. Cut-out shapes jut out and disappear like safety deposit boxes, providing tables, seats and walls for various domestic, professional and social scenes. Designed by Mark Wendland, the forest image suggested to Mr. Patel "nature as a kind of irrational force."
Twenty years ago, he said, the forest print would have been hand-painted. Indeed, since the early 1990s, scenic designers have increasingly made use of digital printing and projections, and today, it's unusual for a set not to have them. As opposed to solely relying on old-school materials like steel, wood and paint, with digital printing and projections, "you can make changes much more easily," he said. "You have complete control over it, and at an affordable price."
This is critical, as audiences have come to expect a certain amount of design razzle-dazzle that was once the domain of Broadway. "With off-Broadway you used to think, 'It's going to be interesting but not necessarily polished.' Now the production values are incredibly high, as are the expectations. They're almost like mini-Broadway productions, but with no money. There's a lot of sweat that makes these things happen."
One of the ways that the "The Great God Pan" production is of its time is the high number of locations in which it takes place. Mr. Patel said that as playwrights begin to think more cinematically, their plays tend to have many more settings and transitions. "I feel like when I do a new play, the first problem is: How do I fit this on stage?"
Anyone with an abacus could calculate that one digital print of a forest is a cheaper form of set dressing than a half-dozen sets with exact sociological and geographical details. But had Mr. Wendland opted for this level of specificity, Mr. Patel said, the design might have detracted from the story telling. Instead, the abstraction released audiences into a kind of visual dream state that suited the play's theme of getting lost and found in the wild of memory. "Otherwise the production would have been a machine to deliver naturalistic scenes and there would have been no metaphor. This play reminds you that if the script is solid you don't really need that much, you don't need the minutiae."
Mr. Patel is currently in previews for "Water by the Spoonful." The play takes place half in an Internet chat room and half in the world outside the chat room in north Philadelphia. "It's tricky," he said. "The Internet world leads to abstraction, but the rest of the play has to be rooted in a textured, urban, griminess."
The task of portraying the use of the Internet on stage is a relatively new and increasingly common one for scenic designers. "We have to find a different kind of theatrical language for it. We don't want it to be too 'Tron' because it's about people trying to connect to each other. But how do you create a scenic language that has the clarity to tell you what's going on without just isolating characters in plexiglass boxes?"
There's no looking back in time for answers to that question. But for all of the newness of the "The Great God Pan" set, it did send Mr. Patel back in history to a particular design by Josef Svoboda, a pioneering Czechoslovakian scenic designer who took the European theater world by storm throughout the second half of the 20th century. Inspired by the potential kinetic mutability of scenic space, he was, among many things, the first renowned designer to experiment with the use of projections and hydraulics. In college, Mr. Patel attended a lecture that Mr. Svoboda gave in Italy where he discussed his 1959 "Hamlet" design for the National Theatre in Prague. The set was a massive box-like structure from which cut-out shapes jutted out and disappeared like safety-deposit boxes.
Said Mr. Patel: "As in fashion, what's old is new again."