Next up at THEATREWORKS, and just around the corner now, is John Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH, in the justly celebrated adaptation by Frank Galati. I can promise you it will be epic theatre in every sense of the word. It's core story is the epic journey of the Joads (all twelve of them) to California. The Joads face epic obstacles: water and fire, thunder and rain, starvation, brutality and death. Three dozen actors cross our stage in this show, playing abut 60 parts, and believe me that feels like a whole country on the move in the Bon Vivant theater. The set is bigger than Oklahoma--easily the biggest set we've ever built. Walk in and you wonder where the audience goes. Roy Ballard, our mightily oppressed technical director, has told us there are four miles of lumber on the set, 8000 nails and 100 pounds of screws. And there's also the Colorado River and a wall of water. Everything about the show is big, grande, epic and vast. Which is also the problem.
At the end of each season we sit down for a review of our work, thinking on things past and to come, and each year I say THE SETS ARE TOO DAMN BIG! WE ARE A SMALL THEATRE! WE SHOULD HAVE SMALL SETS! Why should Zorro cover more acreage than Home Depot? Why should Blithe Spirit play in a living room the size of Shaquille O'Neal's Florida mansion? Why indeed? And yet, somehow, I seem to be yelling against the wind. My cries go unheard, even by me. Nothing seems to stop us from getting bigger if we possibly can. If we can, we do. Have I stumbled upon some fundamental law of the universe? Does this begin to explain our financial crisis? Will we always expand beyond any reasonable measure?
In the case of The Grapes of Wrath, it's hard to say how or if we should have gotten smaller. We have built to the size of the play. I took my friend Encho Avramov to see the set yesterday. He's a passionate, perpetually disgruntled Bulgarian theatre artist, and he was horrified. I asked him what he would have done. He said he would have used the truck and nothing else. The truck is a 1929 Chevy and it is a thing of beauty and the iconic symbol of the story. What about the river, I asked? The river is the main reason the set is so big--that and the fire and the grave. There has to be plenty of room below the stage floor, which in our case we have not got (our stage floor is thick poured concrete). "I would build everything from the truck," Encho said. I remembered Brecht's Mother Courage, the classic epic theatre play, which was originally staged with a chuck wagon, a few sheets, and nothing else.Of course. But what about the river, I asked. "I would build everything from the truck," Encho said. Meaning the river would be fabric that comes from the truck, along with every other scenic unit. "O no," I said, "You aren't going all Japanese on us are you?" I could see it would be beautiful, and wonderfully simple, but some how the stylized river he was proposing didn't compute. The King and I meets the dust bowl? Wrong, wrong, wrong! We have to have real water, I said. Real fire! Real rain! This is an elemental show. We need the elements. And in this vigorous exchange I shouted myself into an epic corner of another vast set in our little theatre, which I will doubtless rail against at season's end, and to no avail.