During her directing-debut, Kasey Foster recreates Gore Vidal’s “Romulus” with statuesque characters and a crumbling set design, a craft which set designer Joanna Iwanicka describes as “an empire that’s defaulting and crumbling around the characters.”
At a small theater like Oracle, that means it also decays around the show’s spectators. In the tucked-away storefront at 3809 N. Broadway, the intimate set leaves little room between actors and theatergoers. Viewers of the new production sit in a set design made to resemble a dilapidated pool, watching the characters on the deck from below.
Iwanicka’s idea for the deserted pool set was inspired by current images of urban decay.
“These foreclosed properties and mansions that used to be so glamorous and full of hope, now (are) going to into disrepair because of the economy and people not being able to take care of their wealth,” Iwanicka said.
According to Foster, the play shows the consequences of wealth in tough financial times.
The play is set in ancient Rome, and Foster said she is careful to make sure that subtle connections to modern day don’t distract from the script itself. Both Foster and Iwanicka say they aim to enhance the production with a new concept without detracting from the original story.
Iwanicka hopes her design sets “won’t take them completely out of the world but give them something else to think about by placing it a little closer to home.”
The show follows the character of Romulus as he intentionally but secretly tries to bring about the fall of Rome. His forward-thinking character differs from those around him who support the empire. Foster directs traditional characters in the play to use rigid gestures to physically represent ideology that is set in stone.
Foster’s previous experience in movement performance helped inspire her idea for living-sculpture characters that are “stiffening with this old world mentality that is decaying.”
“All of the characters that try to fight for Rome and its continued existence are becoming more statue-like,” she said. “(Just) like which once was an extravagant pool is now just full of algae.”
Ancient Roman costumes and timeless set design combine to create a time-ambiguous environment that allows viewers to make connections to more contemporary issues. Sparking community engagement is part of Oracle’s mission as a free public access theater.
“A main component of our theatre’s mission is producing work that engages our audience in social discourse,” Max Truax, artistic director at Oracle Theatre, said in an email.
Actor Kevin Cox, who plays Romulus, believes the theater offers a unique platform to encourage ideas and conversation within a community.
“In a world of overwhelming technology and diminishing interpersonal relations, the beauty of theatre is that it remains unscathed,” he wrote in an email statement. “In order to have theatre, you will always have the audience, the storytellers and the communication that happens in that space between the two.”
The cast of “Romulus” will rely on strategic stage design and well-planned choreography for nearly a dozen actors to move seamlessly around the 40 audience members also seated on the small set.
“At the heart of all the work we produce is a need to commune with our community, to share with them a space, an idea, and a story,” said Truax. “We want that experience to be special and sacred for them, and, most importantly, we want it to be theirs.”
Oracle operates mainly on funding from donors who support the theater monthly. This is Iwanicka’s second production at Oracle and she recognizes how a bare theater space offers a blank slate to a show’s creative license.
“I think it’s also fun for the audience to enter the same four walls and with every show kind of be surprised,” she said. “You know, the previous show I designed was a completely different set up so its fun to return to a space and do something completely different.”
She also believes that free theater is an approachable start for theater-newbies.
“You can’t really beat ‘free’,” she said, “It’s a good gateway into the theater community.”
“Romulus” runs Oct. 11- Nov. 22 at 3809 N. Broadway. Tickets are free at publicacesstheatre.org.