Backstage, Rising Stars Reign in 'Richard III'

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2007

There is no "American Idol" for the theater -- unless you count that execrable "Grease" audition show with Billy Bush, but let's not -- and it can be next to impossible for fledgling drama majors to land high-profile projects just out of grad school. This is doubly the case for designers such as Lee Savage and Jennifer Moeller, who, notwithstanding their recent graduation from one of the nation's top theater schools (Yale), might have spent years waiting for their big break.

Enter Michael Kahn.

"I really give him a lot of credit for taking a risk with young designers, and it's something I wish more artistic directors would do," says Savage, 29, whom Kahn hired as set designer for the Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Richard III," which is among the more high-profile offerings in the city's six-month Shakespeare in Washington festival. "There's so few jobs, and, more often than not, it seems to me like Broadway designers are being brought into the regional theaters."

Savage and Moeller (who designed the costumes) were students of legendary designer Ming Cho Lee before his retirement last year. Kahn was a close associate of Lee's, and he, along with costume designers Jane Greenwood and Jess Goldstein, recommended the star pupils for the company's new staging of "Richard III," with Geraint Wyn Davies in the title role.

Press materials describe the reigning concept as "animalistic," a word that has been both a boon and hazard for the designers.

"It comes essentially out of the animal imagery in the play," says Moeller, 31. "Specifically, with Richard, he's referred to as a toad, a hedgehog -- "

" -- a dog, a boar," Savage adds.

It's not surprising that one of Shakespeare's greatest villains would be described thus, but the inhumanity in the play is hardly confined to Richard. He is the one whose ruthless assault on the crown sets in motion the bloody sequences to come, but immorality is legion in the tragedy and provides a jumping-off point for the play's set and costumes.

"One thing audiences will notice is that the space is entirely off-balance," Savage says, and indeed the stage has a funhouse tilt that seems calculated to induce vertigo. "I think it adds a level of danger and uneasiness to the events that unfold." Rusted metal bars are used to frame and create a number of playing spaces; they also heighten the prisonlike atmosphere.

"What Michael said to us was that he wanted them to feel like caged animals," says Moeller, whose costumes suggest bestial elements while remaining true to the medieval era. "Luckily for me, there's a lot of fur details in the clothes from the period, so you'll see a lot of fur -- all faux furs."

Richard himself, he of the hump and various other deformities, has posed a challenge for designers since the play was written, and the degree of deformity is often a defining element of a production. "In the Ian McKellen film, there's just a slight limp," Moeller says. "Or you can go way in the other direction. Ours is -- he's pretty deformed." The designer worked closely with Wyn Davies on both his look ("it was very important for him to be very disfigured") and his clothes.

"You shouldn't look at any of the actors and think they look like animals," Moeller reminds us. Then again, "Richard's kind of a slimy guy, so I found this leather that has a pebbled quality that looks almost reptilian. Almost. Again, there's no real scales, but there's something about it that's a little -- slithery."

"It's hard once you're out of school," Savage says, "because collaboration is a word that's used a lot in the theater, but I find it's rarely practiced until you're all in the same room, and by that time it's almost too late, because everyone's done their work independently." That's where Moeller and Savage have an advantage. They not only share an alma mater and understanding of each other's aesthetics, the distance between their Brooklyn, N.Y., apartments is a mere 20 minutes.

"It's been great to really hone these ideas and check in with each other constantly," Savage says. "And it makes a big difference in the end product."

Richard III Shakespeare Theatre 202-547-1122 Through March 18

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