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By Brian Robin

Designer Boritt Sets a Stylish Table

Beowulf Boritt once brought a river through Broadway. A 15-foot wide, three-foot deep river, big enough and deep enough for Keira Knightley in the title role and her lover, Laurent (played by Matt Ryan), to drown her husband in the 2015 production of ThérèseRaquin by Emile Zola.

This feat of nature isn’t to be confused with Boritt’s feat of machinery: the 60-foot diameter, three-story tall turntable Boritt created on Broadway for Act One which brought Boritt a Tony Award.

That ability to command the grand design gesture doesn’t preclude him from taking the functional style road, which he does for avaaz, Michael Shayan’s funny and poignant tribute to his mother.

Boritt’s skill for bringing Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, to audiences through his glamorous—yet functionally simple—set, runs deep. The set is as glitzy as it is simple. An ornate Haft-Sin table, the foundation of Nowruz celebrations throughout the world, is surrounded by chandeliers that help frame the set, which is covered in green Astro-turf-like shag carpeting. That symbolizes Nowruz’s theme of rebirth.

None of it is accidental or casual.

After reading the script and learning about Nowruz and the Haft-Sin table, Boritt sat down with Shayan. They not only discussed Nowruz, but staging avaaz in the round, putting Shayan-as-his-mother in the middle of the audience to create a party atmosphere. Only when the two—along with director Moritz von Stuelpnagel—realized this was impractical did Boritt get to work on avaaz’s actual set.

That began in earnest with Boritt building a model and sticking a solitary figure—representing Shayan—in the middle of it. That gave Boritt a sense of scale, because he didn’t want to build too big a set, lest Shayan get lost on stage.

“The entire set is an extension of the Haft-Sin table. That’s what the play is centered around,” Boritt said. “As Michael told us, it can be ornate or it can be simple. It’s like a Christmas tree in that there’s not necessarily a correct way to do it. The seven ‘S’ objects (seven objects starting with ‘S’ in the Persian language that make up the table) were going to be a part of it.

“We played with some different styles and ended up with this fantastic setting with ‘grass’ shag carpeting. That celebrates life and the rebirth. There are modern glass vessels on the table. Everything is there to tie it together in a visual way.”

And it does, with a generous assist to the nine chandeliers arranged in an arch over the set. They not only add glamour to the home you visit for Nowruz, but they provide a means of focus.

“Part of my job is to control the space and focus on one thing—the actor,” Boritt said. “A big musical with a 30-person chorus line requires difference staging than a one-person act like this. In film, the camera does that. You’ve got close-ups, tracking, zooms, pans, whatever. But in theatre, the way we control what you’re looking at is the combination of the set creating the frame that controls your eye (by) making it tighter and wider and the lighting designer putting a spotlight on it.

“For me, that’s the fun of being a set designer, compositionally designing what I’m doing to focus on one person.”

Boritt’s ability to focus on all elements—from one-person productions like avaaz to lavish Broadway productions—is what makes him one of the hottest designers in the business. ThérèseRaquin and Act One were two of Boritt’s 29 Broadway design credits, the most recent of which—New York, New York—earned him his sixth Tony nomination.

His love of telling stories through his sets is why he became a designer. He liked drawing, he liked theatre and he liked theatre people. They were interesting, likeable and devoted to their crafts. One summer working on a summer stock production of Harvey in Gettysburg, PA. was al the impetus he needed to do this for a living.

“Theatre is literature in my mind. It is words the actor is presenting to the audience,” he said. “That’s the heart of what we do and everything I’m doing is trying to support that in some way. I’m trying to grab that theatrically and marry the style visually to what the words are.

“At its heart, theatre doesn’t need design, but design enhances the entire show and I’m trying to do that. It’s like frosting on a cake. Cake is OK without frosting, but I like it better with frosting and design is that frosting.”

See Boritt’s latest set-design “frosting” in avaaz, playing on the Segerstrom Stage through May 27.

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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