When the Theatre of Youth decided to stage "Still Life With Iris," the troupe knew the play would be a challenge. One of the characters is Mozart. Another is Annabel Lee, the doomed maiden from the poem by Edgar Allan Poe.
One scene unfolds in the "Tunnel of Unwanted Things," home to all kinds of unwanted objects, such as worn-out shoes and bridesmaid's gowns. Another takes place in the dark, dreamy "Land of Nocturno."
Complicating things further, characters in "Still Life With Iris" wear their identities literally on their sleeves. Everyone wears a "Past Coat," remembering his or her experiences by referring to buttons, patches and patterns.
With its bittersweet themes of lost and regained memories, "Still Life With Iris" might well remind people of "The Wizard Of Oz" or "The Blue Bird." It's about a 10-year-old girl wandering through a fantasy land, finding strange places and searching for the way home. Where could anyone get a clue on how to clothe such a fantastic, complex play?
Set designer Ken Shaw had an idea: The Albright-Knox Art Gallery. It's home to all kinds of craziness, from Salvador Dali's bent plates to Joan Miro's colorful, surrealist canvases.
Shaw called Jennifer Bayles, the gallery's curator of education. The two of them went for a walk. They strolled the gallery, looking at the paintings and turning over the possibilities. Like Iris, they were on an adventure.
So was TOY's artistic director, Meg Quinn, who says that it's rare for a theater and a gallery to team up in this manner. "It's a unique collaboration," she says.
The play, she adds, was an adventure from the start. Written by Steven Dietz and premiered in Seattle only a few years ago, "Still Life With Iris" is still largely uncharted territory.
"It has tremendous design potential," Quinn says. However, she adds: "It's a chancy play, because people don't know it. They don't respond as easily as to "Charlotte's Web.' "
Pears and mashed potatoes
For TOY, the time is ripe to reach into the unknown. After over a year at its new location in the refurbished Allendale Theatre, the children's theater is feeling at home with its expanded space and improved equipment.
"It's certainly a great pleasure to put a show on stage here," Quinn exults. "We never had height like this," she says, referring to the 40-foot gallery.
About 43,000 theatergoers have visited TOY on Allen Street, Quinn says, and the theater loves its place in the urban neighborhood. "Sundays, when I'm walking to the theater at 1:30 in the afternoon, I see the whole neighborhood bustling with families," she beams.
On a gorgeous spring morning, the stage is set for "Still Life With Iris," and the backdrop devised for the "Land of Nocturna" shimmers with a peculiar iridescence. Shades of blue, purple and indigo meet in patterns suggesting deep water, butterflies, or -- as it is supposed to suggest -- the shifting, dreamy colors of night.
Shaw based this backdrop on a painting by Frantisek Kupka, called "Lines, Planes, Depth."
When he and Bayles searched out paintings to work into "Still Life With Iris," they kept in mind color and energy, concepts to which children respond. "All the works are favorites of kids," says Bayles, who has had plenty of opportunity to observe school groups as they trek through the Albright-Knox.
Dali was, naturally, a shoo-in. The surrealist painter, Bayles says, has always been popular with children.
An airy Dali canvas called, ponderously, "The Transparent Simulacrum of the Feigned Image," suggested to Bayles and Shaw the beach on which Iris meets Annabel Lee. The painting has cool, sandy tones. In the middle of the painting, dripping off a raised surface, is one of those Play Doh-like "blobs" people have come to identify with Dali.
"Pears, mashed potatoes, or melting ice cream, depending on how you look at it," is how Cheryl Orlick of Albright-Knox describes this particular blob.
Similarly childlike is Joan Miro's whimsical "Carnival of Harlequin," which becomes, for TOY's purposes, the backdrop for Iris' play room. "This is a surrealist painter, playing with imagination and the subconscious," Bayles says. "So it's like entering Iris' imagination."
What about the Past Coats, the fanciful clothes that communicate the characters' experiences? Shaw and Bayles found their cue for the costumes in an unlikely place. It came from "Sun, Tower, Airplane," a 1913 painting by Robert Delaunay.
With glimpses of the Eiffel Tower, an airplane and a Ferris wheel, the work expressed Delaunay's excitement about technology. "When Ken and I wandered through the gallery, I told him about how the painting expressed the Wright brothers' sense of movement," Bayles says. "But he was inspired by the color."
For the "Tunnel of Forgotten Things," Shaw was looking for something stunning.
He and Bayles auditioned Gustave Courbet's "The Source of the Loue" (too realistic) and Francesco Clemente's "Son 1984" (too subtle) before hitting on Clyfford Still's "1957 -- D, No. 1." It grabs the viewer with its vivid yellow and deep black.
Shaw found a creative way to bring "1957 -- D, No. 1" to the stage, with a black backdrop and yellow curtains. "We dress the characters from head to toe in black, so they vanish," he says.
Most of the paintings got a more precise treatment. Using a grid, Shaw blew the works up. A half-inch became a foot.
He stresses, however, that he didn't worry about faithfully re-creating the artists' images. "We wanted to capture the flavor of the paintings," he says.
Music, art and magic
As the morning gives way to a brilliant afternoon, the magnificent strains of Schumann's Piano Concerto are billowing through the theater. Music director Chester Popiolkowski is testing the sound system. He is preparing an original score which, like the paintings, will suggest the timeless. "Mozart appears in the play," Quinn points out. "And there's all that art and magic."
Looking around the theater, it's easy to get a sense of magic. On stage, Jamie Devinoff is watching a surreal-looking little ball softly rise and fall. In her beaded pink and purple Past Coat, she seems to blend into the Miro-inspired mural behind her.
At first, Devinoff might seem an odd choice to play Iris. She is employed by TOY as the stage manager. And while Iris is 10 years old, Devinoff will turn 26 the day the play opens.
But she's something of a sprite, with a nose ring, hair as long as Crystal Gayle's and gauzy street clothes that aren't much different from her costume. A big part of playing Iris, she says, is letting go of inhibitions. "That's what I'm trying to do with her."
Devinoff adds that she's aided by the set. "It's like a different world," she muses.
TOY people tend to grow dreamy when they talk about "Still Life With Iris." Quinn sees a message in the play which, she says, will resonate with adults as well as children.
"It makes you take stock of your life, the people who love you, who you are and the bonds that can't be broken," she says.
Shaw, as he surveys the blues and purples of the "Land of Nocturna," thinks visually.
"You create something you know people are going to enjoy," he says, "and something you know they're going to love and that's going to surprise them around every corner."
"Still Life With Iris" will play through June 3 at the Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen St.