“At times I gravitate towards a big theatrical gesture,” notes Argentinean-born set designer Riccardo Hernandez, whose New York career began in 1994. Certainly, a single bold visual element unites several of his recent designs: This season’s revival of The Skin of Our Teeth was capped by a roof for a cozy New Jersey home that later doubled as a Noah’s-type ark to save the epic’s characters from a biblical flood. For last season’s Red Speedo, Hernandez presented audiences with a forty-foot-long cross-section of an Olympic-size pool — in which a swimmer actually splashed through his laps — that somehow also visually suggested a Greek frieze. Little wonder that three directors this year are being honored with Obies for plays they staged with sets by Hernandez.
A designer of more than 250 shows in New York and around the world, including over 20 productions for the Public Theater, Hernandez also teaches at the Yale School of Drama, from which he graduated.
Hernandez almost always develops his settings by first shaping rough small-scale models. “I deal with spaces,” says Hernandez. “The design always has to work in three dimensions.”
Dane Laffrey laughs as he recalls furnishing director Jack Cummings III with a radical look for Transport Group’s all-female revival of I Remember Mama in 2014: “I said to Jack, ‘Here are ten dining room tables and sixty chairs — now please go and enjoy yourself!’ and I walked away.” Laffrey, winner of this year’s Obie for Sustained Excellence in Set and Costume Design, is a frequent collaborator with Cummings, the Transport Group artistic director who received an Obie this year for staging a Picnic revival that Laffrey designed. That setting, too, was audacious: Instead of a realistic 1950s depiction of two adjoining front porches and yards, a long, stark wall made from plywood sheets, in front of which crouched several battered patio chairs, greeted audiences.
“Jack and I do a lot of reduction — removing the decoration — to distill a design down to reflect a play’s essence,” says Laffrey. “After working together for almost ten years, we have developed a strong verbal and visual shorthand.”
Among his numerous credits with other directors, Laffrey has provided the sets and/or costumes for the premieres of such distinguished recent works as Rancho Viejo, The Christians, the Pulitzer-winning Disgraced, and Deaf West’s Broadway production of Spring Awakening. “I am not interested in décor so much as cracking the code of the performance space,” he asserts. “I think the most vital part of good design regards how an audience watches something. It’s all about creating an environment for the play.”
A screwball romantic comedy with serious undertones, Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone offers a story about two South Vietnamese refugees who meet and fall in love in a relocation camp in Arkansas in 1975. Rednecks and ninjas clash in the fast-moving saga, which involves numerous locations in America and Southeast Asia. First presented at South Coast Repertory in California, the play premiered Off-Broadway last fall in a Manhattan Theatre Club production augmented by May Adrales’s skillful direction.
No small part of the success of Adrales’s lively production was derived from the many witty, colorful projections created by Jared Mezzocchi, who won an Obie for his work on Vietgone. A teacher of projection design at the University of Maryland, Mezzocchi has worked with such downtown New York companies as 3LD, HERE, and The Builder’s Association. Mezzocchi credits Adrales, with whom he had previously worked, for bringing him into the project. “May recognized how the play demanded that media would be integral to the show,” notes the designer.
The resulting mix of projected still and moving images invoked a high-octane visual world for the play that suggested a graphic novel. “The comic strip aesthetic bubbled up the more we worked on it,” says Mezzocchi, who also credits Tim Mackabee, the scenic designer, with devising several large expanses on which to project the images, which blended photo-realism with visuals from comic books of the 1950s and ’60s. Noting that Vietgone is slated for upcoming productions by other companies, Mezzocchi says, “I am very interested in seeing how other designers are going to handle it.”