Each month, American Theatre goes behind the scenes of the design process of one particular production, getting into the heads of the creative team.
Elina de Santos, DIRECTION: When I read this play, I loved it immediately. It’s a really beautiful dark comedy, a love story. We meet a woman, Ashley, who comes home from work well-dressed and pretty much together. Her neighbor, Benny, follows her in and reveals to us that she is a hoarder! The playwright, Rob Mersola, really wanted you to fall in love with Ashley and not judge her right away. But if you arrive at the theatre and immediately see this garbage-strewn house that she lives in, then you don’t have any opportunity to fall in love! I wanted the audience to find out about this woman as her neighbor finds out about her. So David Mauer and Hazel Kuang came up with the idea of how to dump (excuse the pun) this reveal in front of us! It was spectacular. It happened maybe three minutes into the play. You see Ashley coming through the audience; you see this idyllic living room painting on the wall; and then it literally falls away in front of you. Rob rewrote the beginning of the play so we got the reveal the way we wanted. Every night at that moment we got applause, because it was so, “Oh my god, that’s where she’s living!” So much of the storytelling was encompassed in that set, more than almost any set that I’ve ever worked with.
David Mauer, SET DESIGN: The inspiration for that opening reveal was a famous Buster Keaton scene—he’s standing there in front of the house, and the front of the house falls down and he lands right in the window. We dressed the back of the wall with layers of foam, cardboard and trash bags stuffed with foam and other soft material, and that wall basically became the floor of the house after it fell. In another reveal, Ashley pulls a wall of garbage down on Benny. And it needs to be gone for the next scene. So Hazel Kuang and I needed a mountain of garbage that could cover him, but wouldn’t injure the actor, and we also had to create a fake leg that would be Benny’s broken leg. We taped the boxes together and filled them with stuff, and there was a hinge on the entire thing. The one hole in the center where we didn’t put a box was the spot through which Benny could stick his head, turn, and discover his leg facing him. The boxes started out new and by six months were crumbling; they looked more hoarder-ish. The repairs were done with spray adhesive and tape. Duct tape is amazing.
Most of the prop elements for the set came from shows that we had already done. That mummy is named David (not after me, it’s Ashley’s husband). The mummy was Rob Mersola’s one major purchase—it came from an actual cinematic prop house. It was Styrofoam, so it was not super-heavy. Over time, the eroded skin they put on it actually peeled off and flaked. That was the biggest ick factor. I don’t know if he’s lying or not, but Rob said he slept with it. I told him he should take it on drives so he could use the carpool lane.
Dirty Filthy Love Story by Rob Mersola ran Nov. 24, 2012–April 14, 2013, at Rogue Machine Theatre in Los Angeles, under Elina de Santos’s direction. The production featured scenic design by David Mauer and Hazel Kuang, lighting design by Leigh Allen, sound design by Christopher Moscatiello, technical direction by Mauer and stage management by Megan Laughlin.