Ken MacDonald’s scenic view

Inside paranoia

Rating: NNNNN

EARSHOT written and directed by Morris Panych, with Randy Hughson. Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Previews to Sunday (February 11), opens Tuesday (February 13) and runs to March 18, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday (except February 10) and Sunday 2:30 pm. $19-$24, Sunday pwyc, previews $13, stu/srs discount. 416-531-1827.
designer ken macdonald stands on a grey set that shoots backward into a diminishing perspective. Everything’s askew, tipped at bizarre angles on a raked floor — you risk getting seasick if you look at it for too long.Grabbing a paintbrush and rag, MacDonald dabs and rubs ochre on a small section of wall to show a pair of scenic painters what he wants. The design takes us into the room inhabited by Doyle, the bizarre solo figure in Morris Panych’s Earshot. Doyle can hear not only the voices next door but also a neighbour’s heartbeat or a door opening across town.

“You’re a madman, you know,” calls out one of the painters jokingly. He knows he’s going to have to paint the water stains on the wall so they’re at the same weird angles as the ever-shifting perspective.

But MacDonald’s not so much crazy as gifted. He’s been winning applause and awards with his visual sense, most recently a Dora for the movement-based piece The Overcoat. MacDonald came up with a series of huge factory windows that allowed mysterious figures to spy on the central action, while a pair of mammoth descending pens created an oppressive office atmosphere. He’s also responsible for the design of Hysteria, a huge library of file drawers, most closed but some open suggestively, which visually embodied the inner lives and art of Freud and Dali, central figures in the play.

For Earshot, the Vancouver-based artist returns to the Tarragon Theatre, where he and Panych collaborated on — among other shows — Panych’s plays 7 Stories, Vigil, Lawrence And Holloman and The Ends Of The Earth. Verbally and visually, all the productions start in the normal world and then twist it out of sync.

“Morris loves those minuscule events that set people off,” says the affable MacDonald in the Tarragon green room.

“These are paranoid little people who make a big deal out of someone sticking a tongue out at them or someone else pushing the elevator button. The Overcoat was like that, too, with the central character losing his coat and finding his life destroyed as a result.”

MacDonald has brought along a little miniature of the Earshot set, complete with bed, sink and mirror, to one-eighth scale. He doesn’t do the drafting or build the models himself — “I failed math in high school and I’m terrible at numbers” — but uses them to visualize how the full-scale creation will look.

The sets are the perfect environments for the neurotic, distrustful people who inhabit Panych’s world. His characters are never lacking in quirky humour, and that’s why they’re endearing.

“Morris cares more for the look of a show than any other director I know. He wants what people see onstage to be as theatrical and striking as what they hear, so he allows me to go far out with a design. He’s always encouraging me and pushing me to go that extra bit further.”

jonkap@nowtoronto.comtheatre profile

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