Theatre Journal 55.1 (2003) 156-158
[Access article in PDF]
Death of a Salesman. By Arthur Miller. Swine Palace Productions, Reilly Theatre, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 30 April 2002.
Located on the Louisiana State University campus for ten years now, Swine Palace Productions has just completed its third season in its permanent home, the Reilly Theatre. The Reilly was previously the Livestock Judging Pavilion for the university's agricultural program. Imagine an indoor arena enclosed on two sides by stadium seating, through which cows, goats, and pigs once paraded. Then imagine renovating the space with the intention of housing Equity productions. Four million dollars contributed by the State of Louisiana, arts funding organizations, and private donors made the conversion possible. The Reilly now houses state of the art sound and lighting equipment, a removable wooden floor, movable seating to accommodate changing stage arrangements, a lobby, offices, and cast facilities.
The Reilly's unique physical design presents formidable directorial challenges. The interior is quite large and open, despite a seating capacity of only 420. The floor space, 110 feet by 65 feet and [End Page 156] separated by permanent seating on two sides, does not foster intimacy. Sight-lines prohibit the use of elaborate stage design, and, unless the movable seating is configured for a thrust or proscenium stage, sets must be confined to what can be placed on the floor (there is no fly space). However, the Reilly also has its share of advantages. Players have access to the stage from a number of entrances; sound and lighting facilities are unrivalled; and, if the director meets the demands of the space, every seat affords an excellent view.
Director Leon Ingulsrud, a founding member of New York's SITI Company, capitalized upon the unique aspects of the Reilly for a timely revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman asthe last production of Swine Palace's tenth season. Incorporating elements of Greek tragedy and Japanese Noh, Ingulsrud placed the production in the round, with a minimal use of props. Ingulsrud contemporized the play by means of a chorus of forty LSU students, dressed alike in dark suits, ties, and hats, which punctuated the performance with stylized movement indicative of busy urban streets and the corporate marketplace. As the program notes indicate, the production strove to bring out the intended expressionism of the play, rather than the realism often associated with previous American productions. Ingulsrud's interpretation succeeded on this score.
Five minutes before the official start time, the chorus began to enter the stage singly and in pairs. For about fifteen minutes, both the cast and chorus took places on the stage until the floor space was filled. On cue, the chorus then engaged in a synchronized dance that offered a prelude to the story that followed. Abruptly, the chorus fell to the floor as a bright light spilled down over Willy, who gazed up, center stage, with a look of frozen astonishment. Standing alone in a corner, and caught in a light of her own, Willy's wife Linda looked on helplessly. The opening tableau established the visual and emotional tone for the entire production. Willy, literally surrounded by a faceless crowd of suits, itself surrounded by an audience, found himself abandoned by a dream that never materialized, and none of the people closest to him could help. Instead of suffocating under the apartment buildings that crowded his small Brooklyn home and portrayed in Jo Mielziner's archetypal sets for the original 1949 production, Willy, in the vastness of the Reilly, was overcome by the unanswering void of space.
In the absence of sets, the burden of Ingulsrud's Salesman fell squarely on the performers. Along with the chorus of forty students, Ingulsrud cast three actors from the SITI company: Stephen Webber (Willy), Susan Hightower (Linda), and Akiko Aizawa (The Woman). Mostly MFA actors from LSU played the other prominent roles. Cast against type, Webber and Hightower were similar in age to the rest of the cast, and none of the actors seemed to be much older than thirty. The relative youth of the cast, and the choice of...