By Elizabeth Chorney-Booth
Alberta Theatre Projects’ new production of Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 play Disgraced is a thought-provoking and bitingly funny study of modern-day characters, with the entire show taking place within an apartment on Manhattan’s posh Upper East Side, primarily over the course of an emotionally-charged dinner party.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning script is heavy on conversation — as interactions between the characters progress, the show turns into an intense exploration of racism and how the promises of the American Dream play out in the lives of racialized Americans. Director Nigel Shawn Williams wanted audiences to feel an immediate investment in the characters and their world, and that the actors would be supported by a carefully designed set and costuming.
Since race and xenophobia are key themes in the play, as are the privilege and the opulence of life in Manhattan, costume designer Melissa Mitchell wanted the costumes to evoke each character’s background and relationship to that background — all without making those references too literal or “costume-y.” The character of Amir, for example, comes from a Muslim family, but tries to blend in with the Manhattan elite, so Mitchell dressed him in conventional high-end suits. Amir’s wife Emily, on the other hand, is a WASP-y artist and her costumes also reflect her character and how she changes over the course of the play.
“Emily is very free-spirited, so a lot of her clothes start off as being very flowy and creative. She’s also very sexy and confident in who she is,” Mitchell said. “As the show goes on, things get more constricted. At the dinner party scene, her dress is quite tight, but it’s still very sexy. She’s trying to hold onto who she is and be free, but it’s very constrictive. And then the last scene her look completely changes and becomes much warmer, whereas the colours are quite cool throughout the rest of the show.”
Scott Reid, the show’s set designer, also chose a cooler palette when it came to the design of Amir and Emily’s apartment. Emily’s art is inspired by Amir’s Islamic heritage, so there are subtle Muslim motifs that appear in the artwork and some of the furniture design, with an added emphasis on high-end New York luxury. Since the audiences observe the set as they find their seats before the show, it’s their first introduction to the characters’ world, which makes everything from the furniture to the kinds of books on Emily and Amir’s shelves important.
“The set isn’t just a physical space, it’s also this character’s emotional space,” Reid said. “You’re not just looking at the characters’ age and their occupations and their location, you’re looking at their relationships and other emotional elements that contribute to their environment. Hopefully you haven’t just created a realistic world, but also an emotional world that relates directly to the characters.”
Also important to the set design is the configuration of the stage itself. Disgraced is presented in a thrust configuration, meaning that the audience is not only seated in front of the stage, but also closes in around it on either side. The set-up creates the intimacy the play requires to create a sense of tension among the characters, while also containing the actors in a small space, as they would be in a real apartment.
The thrust configuration does provide some unique challenges for a designer, though. What Reid gains in intimacy, he loses in options, especially when it comes to furniture that may block the sightlines of people sitting on either side of the stage. Even if it made artistic sense to dress the apartment with bulky couches or regal armchairs, Reid had to remain conscious of what the side sections of the audience would be able to see from their seats.
“We really had to look at how the furniture interacted with the audience,” Reid explained. “You have to come up with a style of furniture that not only works with the period and style you’re going for, but also consider the fact that there are audience members on all three sides of the stage.”
ATP’s production of Disgraced plays at the Martha Cohen Theatre in Arts Commons from October 16 to November 2. For tickets and more information, visit albertatheatreprojects.com/whats-on/disgraced/.