“It is a magnificent set.”
“It begs to be built.”
“The juxtaposition of abstract angles and movement will HONOR the play.”
Throughout “Caesar and Dada,” Allyson Currin’s world premiere with WSC Avant Bard, the characters of the play-within-the-play give a lot of thought and praise to the set for their production of “Julius Caesar.” So the stakes were especially high for the real-life set designer and assistant director, Steven Royal, to come up with a design worthy of the characters’ adoration.
“There’s so much talk about ‘I love this set, it’s a beautiful set, it’s a radical set’ . . . so in a way, yes, I did listen to that,” Royal says.
What he came up with would certainly have exceeded the avant-garde expectations of Currin’s characters, a troupe of actors in post-World War I Switzerland at the dawning of the Dada movement.
To express the characters’ embracing of anarchy and symbolism, as well as their gradual unmooring from reality, Royal has created a set featuring projections that allow the characters to talk to themselves via video-editing magic. He also utilizes a giant mirror that hangs above the set for the first act, then flips down to the floor for the second.
“The way it moves is sort of — I wouldn’t say Dada, but the set is monolithic,” Royal says.
In fact, he was careful to avoid overt references to the 1916-24 art movement, which embraced surrealism and silliness as a response to the horrors of war. Looking to the art of Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Otto Dix, among others, would have been a “cop-out,” he says.
“We are creating our own Dada, in a way. That was the real challenge,” Royal says. “There’s so much visual reference in Dada art as far as style and line and color and content, and when you boil it down there’s really no one meaning at all, except for rebellion against something more formal.”
Rebellion isn’t just a subtext in Currin’s play. Her characters are a troupe of actors embracing the zeitgeist of Zurich in 1918 but growing increasingly frustrated as the new ideas and philosophies they bring to the rehearsal stage are rejected by their director, a realist. But when a pretty, young American actress joins the troupe, their dynamic begins to change for the better and worse.
“I think Dada is playful and funny,” Currin says. “But it’s ultimately about darkness, and when you let the darkness in too much, to the degree that . . . the characters do, bad things can happen.”
Currin says the idea of the play came to her in a dream, and she utilizes dream sequences throughout to explain the characters’ fears. The anxious times they lived in provide a bridge for Dada’s relevance in our contemporary society, she says.
“The reason Dada makes sense to me [is] I look at the culture I live in, and I see all of these pulls in a variety of directions,” she says. “Even when you look at media, we could spend all day on Twitter, Facebook, Vine and that stuff, rather than focus on our lives. Dada was a response to when people felt pulled in all different directions.”
That struggle is represented in the artistic process as well — but more for Currin’s characters than for WSC Avant Bard’s creative team.
“They express a lot of things that artists express — anyone that has the same feelings of wanting to do something more,” Royal says. “Some people are lucky, brave and stupid enough to actually go for that.”
Through July 14 at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE. 703-418-4808. www.wscavantbard.org. $25-$35.