Covers in pop music — especially ironic ones — are a dime a dozen, but in theater décor? That’s not an everyday occurrence, as far as I’m aware.
So when I read the program for the Goodman Theatre’s current production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, starring Brian Dennehy as Larry Slade and Nathan Lane as Theodore Hickman, the following credits caught my eye: set design by Kevin Depinet, inspired by designs by John Conklin.
In 1990, the Goodman produced Iceman with Dennehy in the “Hickey” role. Conklin created the décor with Robert Falls, director of both versions.
I had questions. What follows is my conversation by phone with Depinet on May 16.
Each act’s set is a variation on a theme, I thought: They all fit together as a…well, as a “set,” themselves, but there’s a great progression from Act I to Act IV. And this is coupled with elegant references to art history. The opening scene is reminiscent of Rembrandt, with the strong chiaroscuro, and we also get whiffs of The Last Supper and other well-known works of art. How much of all of this came from the previous designs by John Conklin, and to what extent did you introduce your ideas to this production? That’s, of course, about ten questions in one, but what I want to discuss with you today, in a nutshell.
[Laughs] Well, let’s start with the idea of the four different sets. In terms of how Bob [Falls] and I worked, because there was a previous set and because he wanted to use the guise of the original production, one of [John Conklin’s] design’s major ideas was these four points of view [onto the bar]. That production being at the old Goodman, which was a different space entirely… You could literally have four sets and wheel them in as you needed them, you know? One might be offstage right, [another] offstage left, and then upstage, and you could just wheel the whole sets in [as the show progressed]. In the new Goodman, you can’t do that, so one of my biggest challenges was figuring out how to make it work, within itself. There isn’t that [offstage] space to put everything. So the original production [had] basically these four separate ideas that were trucked on, and this was more a morphing, sort of onion-skin, layered thing that unfolded, with the [bar]room getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
But, conceptually, the idea of these four spaces was — Bob told me that the whole thing is a kind of journey about being drunk, [and] should be intoxicating. So, the first space: When you’re at the height of being drunk, you don’t remember details. You don’t remember a whole lot of anything. [Laughs] So the room is, on the whole, void of all detail, except for the essentials. Now, there are certainly artists that you could see being references [in Act I], in terms of what it looked like, but that isn’t where we started. It was more about this idea of the journey of drunk men.
The second act, Bob told me he wanted it to [suggest] the inside of someone’s stomach, or vomit. It could be considered “the morning after,” this birthday party — a nasty place. Which is why the walls are that vomitty, putrid green. And then the third act, which is really the most realistic point in the play, or where we felt that it got the most realistic, [takes place] during the day. So we created this blinding, pounding light that was, like — you didn’t want to go outside. And the forced perspective was about everything pushing [the characters] toward that light. And/or everything was coming from that light. Either way, the significance was on that door and what might be beyond it.
And then the fourth act, which probably departed the most from reality, was about drawing [attention] to that singular window. In our minds, that was the space that needed to be as big as Hickey’s last monologue. We needed a big, almost hollow, empty space, with nowhere [for the other characters] to go. And it was great because this big, empty space creates almost an echo effect. Unto itself, the fourth act was an almost Expressionistic place, which is what we wanted.
Throughout all of the sets, I laced little bits, brought in specific architectural pieces in each set in some way, but distorted and used in different ways.
To that last point, I wanted to talk specifically about windows, doors and chairs, as the three motifs that appear in some form in each scene. The chairs all being battered and unique was interesting to me, and made me think that each was representative of the unique, battered container of each man’s life.
I think that’s a great way to put it. They were all battered and distressed and aged, but every one of them was different and I think that’s the important thing. There are all of these different points of view on life [in the play] and the chairs represented that. But they also sort of blend in, in a way that I thought made sense. They don’t draw a lot of attention to themselves.
One other thing that tied the different [acts’] sets together was that everything was [painted] in different shades, different tones of green. Act I was really dark green. Act II was that yellowy green. Act III was an olive-y green and Act IV was a blue-green.
And I should add about Act IV that Bob wanted it to feel as if [the actors] were at the bottom of the sea. That they had literally sunk, and I think there’s even a line in the play where they talk about being at the bottom of the sea. So that was the inspiration for that blue-green, almost seaweedy color of the walls.
Yeah: In Act I, I noticed there was a hanging rail, which is about where a hanging rail on a wall would be, about 10 or 11 feet above the floor. And in Act IV, I don’t remember if there’s a rail at all, or if there is one, it’s really high, like where the window is.
Exactly: The picture rail is in all of the sets except for Act IV because, again, Act IV is a departure from reality, in Bob’s mind. We leave the saloon at that point, in an odd way. It becomes about the isolation that those people feel, and at the end, they come back together, as a group — they don’t want to change. The only thing that the Act IV set has in common with the others is the color treatment, aside from the baseboards, the chairs, the tables and the actors.
Everything else was meant to be very simple. A lot of our inspiration came from a book of photos of crime scenes at the turn of the century in New York. Which is the only place you can see a lot of photos of these types of places, because no one took pictures of these places, because they were just sort of horrible. Why would you? [Laughs] But photos of crime scenes really articulated [for] and showed us what these interiors looked like. And the biggest thing that I noticed was the lack of detail: They were just hollowed-out carcasses of rooms, you know? Just places for men to go and get trashed beyond belief.
To your original question, about [Leonardo da Vinci’s] The Last Supper imagery, I’m not sure how much of that was John Conklin and how much was Bob. [Falls] did make mention to me of that imagery, at least in terms of how he wanted to stage it.
There were two reviews I read from 1990. Tony Adler’s in the Reader said, “There always seems to be a game of Name That Reference being played in Falls’s shows, and Iceman is no exception—a good contestant can catch allusions ranging from Leonardo’s Last Supper to Beckett’s Endgame.” So it does sound like Conklin’s original design triggered that image.
And Frank Rich, reviewing it for The New York Times, wrote that “The design plays a crucial role, with Mr. Conklin varying the standard set in each act to help push The Iceman Cometh out of kitchen-sink realism and into the timeless, trancelike realm it must finally inhabit. The third act, in which the barflies don their Sunday best in a doomed effort to return to the outside world, unfolds in a spooky, tilted barroom whose gates open into a blank Magritte sky.”
Rich continues: “When Hickey’s final departure allows the bar’s denizens to emerge from that stupor and retrieve their sustaining pipe dreams once more, they return to demented life by slamming all the tables together and drinking, stomping, singing and dancing their way back to oblivion. The stage picture could be from Daumier.”
It was interesting to read these old reviews because, despite being more than 20 years old, they conjured images quite similar to the play I just saw.
Absolutely. The thing is, though, that there are very few photographs of what that show was. And the Goodman had a DVD but [the play in 1990] was lit so darkly that I couldn’t really see it. And in the ’90s, too, video-recording was not the best thing in the world. [Laughs] In terms of how I viewed what Conklin had done, that came mainly through Bob, and what Bob had to say about the play. The costume designer had some production shots, there were a couple of photos, but it was mostly listening to Bob, taking those ideas and distilling, for me, what those were.
Between what Bob remembered of his collaboration with John, what little imagery was left over that I saw, and all of the research I did on my own to develop [a sense] of what these spaces were: that’s how it became what’s onstage now.
The other thing I wanted to ask you about is each act’s orientation, its sense of where “front” is, and how that changes from set to set.
The third act is the most realistic interpretation of what the space “is.” I would say that the front of the building is through that door, where the light is. The previous two sets, if you were to ask what those “were,” were for me back rooms of the saloon. And, like I said, in Act IV, all of those rules get thrown out the door. [Laughs] Logically speaking, that [last] room doesn’t exist within the bar, at all — it’s more of a psychological space.
We didn’t ultimately think of this set as a realistic set, as in we mapped it out. And, really, the play itself is not a realistic play. So we designed the set in that same manner.
Well, I can say that, at the beginning of each act, the reveal of the set was quite powerful, in how it set a tone. In particular, when the curtain rose for Act III, people around me audibly gasped. There’s definitely an unfolding sense throughout of what and where this place is, and that it’s swallowing these people alive. If Edward Hopper interpreted the whale in Pinocchio as a room, maybe — that’s for me what your Act III set was like.
What you said about the saloon swallowing these guys up: That’s a great analogy of what, ultimately, we wanted to create. And there’s a sense, hopefully, of danger, too. The idea that it could snap like a mousetrap, that it could collapse, could fall apart: The sense of danger was laced throughout and that was part of my design for the first act, where you feel like it’s so small that people might actually fall off the stage, [Laughs] really tight and really crammed. But in the third act, making it a tunnel, toward this light and that door, a kind of freedom although, also, there’s nothing there. It’s a void of light.
Rich’s review, where he mentions the “blank Magritte sky,” makes me think there might’ve been some kind of blue past the doors, with clouds. But in your set, it’s even more abstract, another step removed, just this milk-colored, pure light. How closely did you work with Natasha Katz, the lighting designer, on how light would flesh out and complete your designs?
Absolutely. Absolutely. If you look at the ground plans and what this [set design] looks like from the top, you’d see that each set is nested in the next set. And in order to light that… It’s really tricky. Act I was all the way in. Act II was directly behind that, and wrapped around. Act III was beyond that, right behind [Act II]. Each would fly out to reveal the next. The entire Act III set, much like a Transformer — its ceiling came off, like a pop can, and the whole downstage area flew out. And then the Act IV set flew in, [although] the Act IV side walls were surrounding all three [prior] sets, the whole time. They were just exposed once the other walls all flew out.
This is all a testament to the Goodman scene shop and the production managers: Those guys are wizards. It’s insane what they made happen. But back to Natasha: We had meetings about figuring how to get light into these spaces, especially since they were so specifically and so tightly lit. I don’t know how much some of the lighting ideas carried over from the original production, either, but I know that [lighting] was very important to Bob, from the very beginning. And you don’t want to have the light hit the back wall, usually, you just want it to hit the actors. You can’t see them, but we cut quite a few slots in the sides to allow lighting to come in, from the sides, to light the actors.
How did you hide those openings? Just by tucking them into places where they can’t be seen from the house?
Yeah. It’s all mysterious. [Laughs] That was a big part of the process: getting these walls to look the way we wanted them to look, and also doing it in a way that we could hide all of the theater stuff. The Act III set had an entire ceiling over it. We had to make slits in the ceiling that you couldn’t perceive [from the house]. It all happens behind the curtain. It’s really impressive.
Lastly, let’s talk if we can for a sec about doors: In the fourth act, despite the enormity of the space, there’s a door stage right that feels, in context, undersized; and then stage left, there’s just a channel, open to the ceiling, a mysterious “non-door” through which actors come in and out. There’s great tension in that last scene between stage right and stage left, and which things happen on what side of the stage. Also, at that point, we’re on the other side of what doors have represented in earlier scenes. The opening in Act I through which Hickey makes his grand entrance, for example, and the door in Act III, this heavenly gate, or mouth, which simultaneously beckons and spits back out. Doors in The Iceman Cometh are loaded entities, and that only builds as the Goodman’s production unfolds.
Totally. Instead of doors, actually, one of the things that Bob and I called them were “portals,” into and out of this world. “Door” was too realistic. The only actual door was in Act III, the most realistic, the most sober version of the space. And that’s also the only time that you see the full bar, in the most detail.
But the other three acts, you totally caught on to it: Doors are so significant, and part of the reason is that there are only one or two ways into each space. In Act I, the portal into that space was the only one. In Act II, stage right, it was more an archway, a larger opening, and then a small door stage left, which we almost got rid of, to minimize, to hone in on these doorways and give them the significance that you’re talking about. And then, what’s interesting about Act IV is, the little door stage right got added, [Laughs] kind of last-minute. Bob needed a way to get some actors out. I really loved the idea of that space not having a door at all, just the sense of that sliver, that opening into the space was right. But the extra door was a practical matter: Patrick [Andrews, as Don Parritt] needed to get out on that side and, in hindsight… I actually thought that that door needed to be taller, more out of scale, out of proportion. But Bob thought it was important that we didn’t draw any significance to it, make any statement about it. And then in Act III, that double door is so significant. We felt it was really important for it to feel realistic.
You just came back from London, correct?
Yeah, yeah. I was working on Detroit, which was at Steppenwolf [Theatre Company in fall 2010]. We did a new production of it for the National Theatre, which was fantastic.
Is there a show you’d like to design that you haven’t yet had a chance to?
Oh, God. People ask me that all the time. I fall in love with every show that I’m designing. Hm. [Pauses] That’s a hard question. It’s more about the relationship that I want to have with the director and the other designers, and looking forward to those collaborations that I enjoy the most. That’s what I really love about my job.
Well, then let me ask you a different question: Is there a set designer who’s a real touchstone for you, creatively?
Oh, sure. There are a couple of designers who I envy and who I think are fantastic. Eugene Lee is, I think, a fantastic designer, a brilliant artist. And I’d say the other designer who I’ve learned from and I respect a lot is Michael Yeargan. Those two guys are just amazing to me and I hope I can do something close to what they have someday.