Do you want the sets and costumes to look realistic, or are you okay with shapes and colors to give you the general landscape of the play? Perhaps you prefer a highly stylized production where sets and costumes offer a purposefully unorthodox look at the world, a design that speaks more to the emotional truths of the play than to a literal place and time.
Did you find yourself on that scale?
Once you’re in the world of the play, what happens if the characters start to sing and dance? Recite poetry laced with obscenities? Climb out into the audience, stick a video camera in your face and project your nostrils on a screen?
Any of these actions might take you out of your comfort zone and thus out of the play. Those excited by abstract shapes and colors describing a futuristic King Lear might not be comfortable with a Norman Rockwell rendition of The Sound of Music. People on either end of that spectrum could look at the opposite extreme and say that’s not a world they recognize.
This October, we’re bringing a show to Popejoy where actors play birds, lions, hyenas and warthogs. The animals speak, dance and sing on stylized sets with shapes and colors used to describe whole landscapes. Disney’s The Lion King pushes its audiences into an abstract world where they quickly accept a length of silk as a river, yet many of those people would reject that same general design style for King Lear or The Sound of Music.
Today, Picasso’s “Guernica” hangs unmoving on a wall at the Museo Reina Sofia, in Madrid, Spain, but in 1937, the painting toured the world, bringing global attention to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. People were moved by its tortured faces and mangled bodies to call for an end to the atrocities of that war.
Many people can't connect with Picasso’s works. He painted shapes and colors rather than realistic, naturalistic people and scenes. He abstracted. He represented, rather than presented, life as he saw it. So does The Lion King. The river is a length of fabric. The sun is a circle made of cloth (see above). The costumes describe character more than the literal animals.
Artists do not create their works to reflect a comforting nature back to you, to tell you all is right with your world. Conflict is central to any art form. Most artists do not intend those conflicts to stay within the frame or on the stage. They want to take you outside your comfort zone. The wonder is that so many entertain you while they do it.
Have no fear: The Lion King is not generally thought of as a disturbing piece of theater. But if you can look past its lack of realism as it tells you its story — and you and many others will — perhaps your comfort zone could stretch a bit to accept a production of King Lear told in a similar fashion, or even The Sound of Music.
Terry S. Davis
Photo: Buyi Zama as “Rafiki” stands before the representational sun in the opening number “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King National Tour. ©Disney. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.