Conventional evaluations of set designs tend to favor the spectacular over the simple.
Audiences, critics, and voting bodies alike talk more about elaborate sets that literalize the malleable expressivity of theatricality than their more physically-restrained counterparts. For instance, the list of Tony Awards nominees for Best Set Design year in and year out tend to support over-the-top artistry over more subdued work.
And yet, frequenters of off-off-Broadway black boxes understand the potential communicative power of well-chosen specificity. The Bushwick Starr’s Singlet provides the latest example of this latent power.
When first walking into this gloriously run-down theatre, the set seems to suggest a low-key modeling studio, with the photography lights pointing at the white backdrops that will serve as the only backdrop for much of this new play by and co-starring downtown stalwart Erin Markey. Its first scenes confirm this initial impression. As she prepares for a photo shoot, a woman of indeterminate age — played by the marvelously eccentric Emily Davis, whose equally distinct turn in Clubbed Thumb’s Of Government last summer now proves to have been no one-hit wonder — celebrates finally fitting into a size small, with ample room to spare.
Her onstage companion (Markey), who at first appears to be a typical, image-obsessed photographer, convinces our apparent protagonist to squeeze into an extra small, with the emphasis on extra; its comically minuscule — Barbie couldn’t even fit into it, let alone a real human being. As their conversation progresses, this shutterbug voices the sort of impossible beauty standards that have become a depressing hallmark of American society (Markey’s underarm-hair stands as a testament to the arbitrary nature of beauty standards).
And yet, as their dialogue continues, we begin to question the corporeal truth of what we’re seeing and hearing. If Markey’s a normal shutterbug, then why does she keep expressing sentiments that make her seem like the insecure half of Davis’ conscience, an embodiment of her internalized sense of self courtesy of external society, regurgitating the sort of damaging judgement both explicitly and implicitly projected onto women at a young age. But really, any age, thus the reason their ages are never specified.
Concrete truth is hard to come by in this two-hander, in which Markey and Davis’ two hands juggle a litany of various identities from different perspectives. Scene to scene, they don’t so much play characters as facets of the sociopolitical characters that can define every dimension of our existence. Piecing together these disparate strands into a fully-comprehensible whole is damn near impossible, perhaps a nod to the plight of women trying to wrestle — Markey and Davis play wrestlers here and there — the influences thrust onto them throughout their lives.
Yet as the play shuffles through a variety of radically-inventive means of theatrical expression, the set remains the same, a subtle indicator that the audience should stay focused on the themes introduced in this initial modeling setting as the play leaves it far behind. How do the conditions of a woman’s life imprint, like a photograph, societally-ingrained conceptions of their gendered beings? Though they’re born with the sort of tabula rasa of innocence conveyed by the set’s all-white aesthetic, how does this endlessly-definable starting point with untold potential for good get corroded by inheriting society’s traditional regressiveness. The white-walls can be seen as an unlimited horizon, or a claustrophobic container of innate possibility. And yet, the women will survive and even flourish, because the foundation of their lives that they walk upon — literally, thanks to the set design — is marked with a lion, a symbol of the under-riding strength of their perseverance.
In this most inconsistent of dramaturgical landscapes, the set serves as the most consistent reminder of the play’s thematic core. The impossibly-idealized imagery of modeling is only one way that society taints a woman’s self-image. Depicting the rest requires relying on a wide range of theatrical forms of expression, all of which reinforces the set’s central tenants.
And since this sole set doubles to encompass the entire world of the play — and everywhere it wanders — it also questions theatre’s role in perpetuating these harmful images. Breaking the mold doesn’t so much take breaking the physical means of theatrical expression, but rather changing those modes of expression held within a theatre, no expensive set designS — emphasis on the plural — necessary.