Scenic de­signer Paige Hath­away gets her props

The Washington Post Sunday - - THEATER - BY CELIA WREN style@wash­post.com

Scenic de­signer Paige Hath­away re­mem­bers the epiphany that led to the 31 skulls in her at­tic-style set for “Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern Are Dead” at Folger Theatre. She was sit­ting in re­hearsal when di­rec­tor Aaron Pos­ner re­quested “more death on­stage.”

“I was like, ‘ Yes! We will have more death on­stage!’ ” the 26-year-old Hath­away re­calls in a ju­bi­lant tone, not­ing that she went on to en­rich the set with two nooses, as well as more skulls and antlers. The macabre ob­jects un­der­score the aware­ness-of-mor­tal­ity theme that runs through Tom Stop­pard’s dizzy­ing philo­soph­i­cal com­edy, a riff on “Ham­let” that places two of that play’s doomed mi­nor courtiers cen­ter stage.

Stop­pard’s script en­vis­ages its pro­tag­o­nists hang­ing out in “a place with­out any vis­i­ble char­ac­ter,” but Hath­away de­vised an art­ful, meta-the­atri­cal clut­ter that in­cludes trunks, can­dle­sticks, swords, lad­ders, dried flow­ers, model ships, up­side-down lamp­shades, a bust of Shake­speare, a pi­ano, a phono­graph, a dan­gling moon and hun­dreds of dusty books. In his re­view of the play, Post critic Nel­son Press­ley called the set “ideal for the play’s wait­ing-in theq ual­ity.”

Hath­away says the at­tic im­age came to her af­ter Pos­ner loosely de­scribed his vi­sion.

“He wanted it to feel like a young per­son’s story — these two young guys who are com­pletely lost,” she re­called re­cently at the Folger of­fices. Ac­cord­ingly, the set needed to be “some­thing that you can get lost in,” she says, and be­cause of the im­plicit men­ace Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern face, needed to have threat­en­ing over­tones. “At the same time,” Hath­away adds, “it’s a com­edy, so it needs to have some de­gree of warmth.”

A jam-packed at­tic en­vi­ron­ment seemed to fit the bill. “You can feel like a kid in an at­tic,” Hath­away says. The at­tic also would have room for many nods to “Ham­let,” in­clud­ing the dried flow­ers (al­lud­ing to Ophe­lia) and the skulls (poor Yorick). Ul­ti­mately, the set would fea­ture three an­i­mal cra­ni­ums; many hu­man shaped skulls molded by props master Lau­ren Chilton; and a Yorick-style skull bor­rowed from Sy­netic Theater, which had used it for its word­less “Ham­let.”

The bold­ness of the look be­lies the fact that, a lit­tle more than a year ago, Hath­away was still an MFA stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Mary­land. “Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern Are Dead” is her first pro­duc­tion as a full-fledged scenic de­signer. (She also de­signed the props.)

Hath­away says she was thrilled with the as­sign­ment. She had read the text in high school, when she was al­ready on her way to a de­sign ca­reer, and was “blown away by it.” Grow­ing up in Wis­con­sin and Texas, Hath­away be­gan paint­ing and draw­ing at a young age, and then fell hard for theater. She did some act­ing in high school but mostly worked back­stage, find­ing those du­ties a much bet­ter fit, “with­out any of the scary self-ha­tred” that comes with act­ing.

Hath­away earned a theater-de­sign-fo­cused BFA from the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa, and sub­se­quent stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Mary­land have been a spring­board for work in the Washington area. She has been an as­so­ciate or as­sis­tant set de­signer on a num­ber of lo­cal pro­duc­tions, in­clud­ing “Sex With Strangers” at Sig­na­ture Theatre last year. As a full scenic de­signer, Hath­away cre­ated the sets for Ol­ney Theatre’s “God­spell” ear­lier this year, and Stu­dio Theatre’s new “Mary-Kate Olsen Is in Love.”

Pos­ner first be­came ac­quainted with Hath­away’s work when she was in a class he was co-teach­ing at Mary­land. Even then he was im­pressed enough to ask her to col­lab­o­rate on the Stop­pard play.

“Some de­sign­ers tend to be stronger dra­matur­gi­cally, where they’re re­ally get­ting in the de­tails of the nuts and bolts and nitty-gritty of the play. Some tend to be bet­ter about the grand ges­ture and the artistry of it. And the best are good in both ar­eas,” Pos­ner says. Hath­away falls into the good-at-both cat­e­gory, he adds, which “is not al­ways com­mon in a very young artist.”

It’s a tes­ta­ment to Hath­away’s bal­anc­ing of grand ges­ture and nitty-gritty that she sneaked that bust of the Bard onto the set.

“It made me very happy thatwe were able to get Shake­speare him­self on­stage,” she says. “He’s able to watch over ev­ery­body.”

TERESA WOOD

Paige Hath­away turned the set for the Folger’s “Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern Are Dead” into “some­thing that you can get lost in.” From left, Stephen Rus­sel­lMur­ray, Romell Wither­spoon as Rosen­crantz, Ian Mer­rill Peakes, Ja­cob Yeh, Rachel Zam­pelli and Adam Wes­ley Brown as Guilden­stern.

Paige Hath­away

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