by Corinna Archer
Before David Harrower’s internationally acclaimed play Blackbird begins, the audience already knows they are about to see something different. A new seating configuration in City Theatre’s Lester Hamburg Studio Theatre is just one of the many ways in which the design for Blackbird enhances the play’s unsettling journey and challenges the audience’s expectations. Harrower’s Blackbird is not your typical love story, but a disturbing encounter between Ray and Una, who are as surprised by what unfolds when they confront their past relationship as the audience is. Not only do the set and costume designs make intriguing first impressions on the audience, but they also intensify the relationship between the characters and the discoveries that are made by the audience during the course of the play. Although the design may appear realistic in a way that immediately draws the audience into the world of the play, it is also full of unexpected metaphors that address the characters’ psychological and emotional experiences, asking the audience to reconsider the way in which “appearances can be deceiving.”
The alley seating configuration that was initially suggested by the director Stuart Carden is perhaps the most immediate surprise that the design for Blackbird has in store for its audience. The first time this theatre has been reconfigured in almost ten years, the new seating arrangement places the audience on either side of the stage so that each audience member is not only confronting the action on stage in a new way, but also sees the members seated opposite while they watch the show. Just as Blackbird’s characters are never certain if they can trust what they see in front of them, the audience is insecure in this unfamiliar relationship to the performance and must constantly reassess what is happening on stage.
The seating configuration also distances the audience from the realistic design, underscoring the play’s thematic issue of appearance versus reality. At first glance, the set, designed by Tony Ferrieri, looks like a “slice” of an authentic office break-room, complete with un-matching furniture, vending machines, lockers, and overhead fluorescents. Realistic details like cup-rings on the table, electrical wiring running up the walls, and various food wrappers littering the set give it a “thrown-together” and non-descript look. Like the set design, the costume design gives the characters authenticity from the very beginning of the play. In his khakis and blue collared shirt, Ray looks like a “regular guy” who fits into the play’s break-room setting, while Una appears to be a stylish, “sexy young adult,” as costume designer Crystal Gomes described these characters. However, while the characters and their physical environment at first seem reassuringly familiar to the audience, this sense of security is quickly shattered by the play’s unusual story.
The design never lets the characters, or the audience, get comfortable, underscoring the tension between Una and Ray that is present from the very first lines of Blackbird. The alley seating configuration forces the set into a long, narrow corridor that becomes even more box-like and closed by the low-hanging fluorescent lights and beams that place a “lid” on the stage. This pressurized space makes the intensity of the action on stage even more threatening and suspenseful: the audience never knows when the lid might blow. The break-room itself sets the tone of the play with its cold blues and grays, which Ferrieri chose to support the apprehension and distance felt by Una and Ray during their initial interaction. The harsh, bare fluorescents also help to make the space uncomfortable, both for the characters and the audience. Like the play itself, this set is hard to look at in a powerful and provocative way. Just as Una and Ray must face an unpleasant reality in this small, stark break-room, so must each person sitting in the house of the theatre, forced to confront the difficult questions that Blackbird poses. The costumes add to the tension by clearly contrasting the way Ray and Una present themselves and relate to the set. Ray, who tries to remain anonymous, wears his work clothes as a kind of office “camouflage.” Una, on the other hand, sticks out in her trendier, darker city look, and has no way of hiding on stage. Like the checkerboard pattern on the floor, Ray and Una are even visually in conflict with one another, engaged in a complex game throughout the play.
As the play progresses, the design moves further away from reality to metaphorically address the play’s various themes and questions that relate to the emotional and psychological state of the characters. The trash left on stage, for example, which at first only appears to be another element of realism, making the space feel “lived-in” by Ray’s coworkers, becomes an effective visual metaphor for the issue of abandonment that arises during the course of the play. Other prominent issues, such as who to blame when ordinary rules and values cannot explain what happens, whether or not you can trust who someone says they are, or what it means to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are all underscored by Blackbird’s surprising design. Just as the play’s compelling yet disturbing story asks the audience to reconsider even the most instinctive values such as right and wrong or real and false, Blackbird’s design challenges the audience to experience the play in a new way that enhances the power of Harrower’s unique but troubling love story.