Living for Design: Beowulf Boritt Conjures Arresting Scenic Worlds for Chaplin, Grace and More

By Mervyn Rothstein
02 Nov 2012

A model of the Grace "pre-set"

There's of course water from the start, with the rain falling in front of the stage and the trough, or moat, in front of it.
BB: That was the design following practical needs. We needed some sort of wall in front of the stage to keep the water from flooding into the audience. So I designed that trough and proscenium all out of Plexiglas that was meant to mirror the museum scene and make the comment that in the museum we're looking at the skull of an extinct animal, and to an extent in the story we're looking at people who may go extinct if they don't change their behavior. I don't think that's a point I expect people to take literally, but it's there in the design.

In the early scenes there are lots of references that it's raining outside, so I thought that instead of doing a curtain at the top of the play let's do a curtain of water and have it raining during the pre-show and get the idea of water as a thematic element there early on.

Let's move on to Broadway, and Craig Wright's Grace, with Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon, directed by Dexter Bullard. Here's a story, set in two identical next-door condominiums, of the decline and fall from grace of a born-again Christian. A very down-to-earth, realistic tale. And your set, which constantly revolves, is one, not two, condo apartments, filling in for the two. There's typical Florida-style bamboo furniture, a sliding-glass and a regular door, a fan turning overhead, and a dark blue backdrop with an oval cutout of the sky and moving clouds, suggestive of a coming storm. Why this? And why one room for two?
BB: That wasn't my decision. It's in the script. Craig wrote that it was two plays done in a single space. Dexter actually directed a production in Chicago that they staged that way. That was the conceit of the play, that you have these people that were in the same space and yet separate spaces. That's sort of a metaphor for life and how you approach life in the play.

A scene from Grace
photo by Hermione Lanoir

The idea of the revolve was something Dexter had played with in Chicago, where they did it on a thrust stage, and he came to me and said he wanted to do something like that. I took it further and said, well, if we're going to revolve the living room, then the doors of the room ought to revolve as well, and in fact the whole world ought to revolve around them.

Pushing further into the idea, when you're in moments of emotional stress, or a heightened emotional moment, the world seems to come unmoored a bit, the room may feel as if it's spinning around you, your whole life may feel like it's spinning around you, and it gets kind of disorienting. Much of the play takes place in this kind of situation, and I felt it would be interesting if the world continually disoriented them, so the turntable is continually spinning throughout the play — it never stops except for scene breaks. And there are two doors that rock back and forth on a 180-degree axis. The relationship of these doors to the rest of the set is constantly changing.

And then upstage we've got a big sky that starts with this big cloudburst, a kind of sunburst image, a quasi-religious image but also a dramatic image. I think you can read it either way. In the course of the play that slowly tracks away and you get a cloudy sky, and then just a clear blue sky, and the clouds start coming back, and in the final moments of the play the sunburst imagery appears again.

The way we did that is that the backdrop is 140 feet long. It's this enormous gauze curtain with the sky imagery painted on it that very, very slowly tracks past upstage. It was quite an engineering feat to get that to work, because a curtain that big moving that slowly constantly wants to wrinkle. I luckily had top-notch crewmen and technical people who made that work for me.