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[Theater reviews]

State of the Art
Show stealers


If Helen Pond and Herbert Senn were citizens of Japan, they would have been designated National Treasures by now. The two set designers spent 38 summers mounting a show a week at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis (1956-1994) and countless winters, beginning in 1965, creating more than 50 of the sumptuous settings for Sarah Caldwell’s late-lamented Opera Company of Boston. Carrying toolboxes to refit their scenery for the huge Bolshoi Opera stage, they even accompanied Caldwell when she took an opera based on Jean Genet’s The Balcony to Moscow.

The lights long ago dimmed to black on these productions, as well as on the Houston Grand Opera revival of Show Boat that was sent to Cairo by the US State Department, a quartet of productions for New York City Opera, and Pond & Senn’s two Broadway musicals, What Makes Sammy Run? and Oh, Coward! But a selection of the finely detailed, three-dimensional scale models the team built to design the scenery, along with other memorabilia, is currently on display at the Cape Museum of Fine Arts in Dennis. The CMFA is itself a work-in-progress, re-opening this summer after an extensive enlarging and renovation.

" Stealing the Show II: Cape Playhouse Set Designs by Herbert Senn and Helen Pond " is a sequel to the popular exhibition of three years ago, but it includes much more than just the pair’s Cape Playhouse designs. " These models are not miniatures of anything, " Senn declares in one of the endearing commentaries that accompany the exhibition, personalizing the duo’s almost 50 years of partnership. " They are the designs. They came first. "

" Stealing the Show II " includes a number of Cape Playhouse production models to mark the theater’s 75th anniversary this summer, and the shows themselves have been captured in photographs that are displayed on a video monitor in the gallery. But the most prominent legacy of Pond and Senn remains the elaborate scenery for Boston Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker. Its second-act design scheme was inspired by the 19th-century English toy cardboard theaters that had different backdrops for each successive scene. A complete set of models of the elaborate drop curtains that change with every new divertissement on the stage-within-a-stage is included in the CMFA exhibition. There’s also a cut-out of the pastel-colored, butterfly-decorated balloon that carries Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, a Pond-Senn invention that since has been copied by a number of ballet troupes.

Pond and Senn hark back to a tradition of theatrical design that depended on beautifully painted scenery to delight audiences rather than on abstract, suggestive modes of depiction. As is obvious at the CMFA, the pair relish the rococo — the more curlicues the better — and the fantastic worlds of their imagination are decked with a riot of trompe l’œil moldings, sconces, and draperies. Visiting these miniature stages is a like trip to a theater of dreams lit by tiny twinkling bulbs that evoke the illusionary magic of two artists who chose a proscenium arch to enclose their works rather than a picture frame.

" Stealing the Show II: Cape Playhouse Set Designs by Herbert Senn and Helen Pond " is at the Cape Museum of Fine Arts, off Route 6A in Dennis, through September 9. Admission is $7; free for youths 18 and under and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday. Call (508) 385-4477

Issue Date: July 26- August 2, 2001