In the Moment: Scenic Designer Tony Cisek on his Scenic Design for Folger’s ‘District Merchants’

Over the past nearly two decades, I have always anticipated what multi-Helen Hayes Award Scenic Designer Tony Cisek will bring forth on the Folger Theatre’s intimate stage space with its two iconic, permanent pillars standing so straight and muscular.

Tony Cisek. Photo by Michael Key, Washington Blade.
Tony Cisek. Photo by Michael Key of The Washington Blade.

So, I looked forward to the wizardly Cisek’s scenic design for District Merchants, the new play using The Merchant of Venice as its touchstone, as written by Aaron Posner with direction by Michael John Garces.

Both my DCMTA colleagues who reviewed and wrote about the play: Jeannette Quick, Sophia Howes, and Robert Michael Oliver were enthralled with District Merchants and its scenic design as was I.

Cisek first came to my attention with his 1998 scenic design for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing directed by Joe Banno at the Folger; Cisek received his first Helen Hayes for that design work.

Craig Wallace (Antoine) and Matthew Boston (Shylock). Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.
Craig Wallace (Antoine) and Matthew Boston (Shylock). Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

I had the honor of interviewing Tony. He made clear that his best scenic designs, “emerged with an open collaboration” with a production’s creative team. His own design starting point may be “scribbles on paper or napkins or the back of old scripts, but that is only a starting point. The initial set concepts are far from the finished product.” And a production’s scenic design takes many months to develop.

For Cisek, a show’s set is inspired from “the script’s words and has a purpose to shape the space.” He wants his “scenic design to be provocative and illuminate.” In our interview and when we discussed District Merchants, Cisek gave much thanks and praise to playwright Aaron Posner and director Michael John Garces for their close collaboration in the design process as well that of assistant scenic designer Paige Hathaway.

District Merchants takes place in Washington during the Reconstruction period of the 1870’s. When I asked directly about the permanent pillars on the Folger stage Cisek indicated he did not want “the two pillars to dominate the set or what the audience saw.” Since the play is set in a time of transition after the Civil War, Cisek “wanted a setting and place not of initial solidness and stability.” He wanted the Folger space “to appear asymmetrical to add depth and to give off a sense of dislocation.” He succeeded totally.

The cast and Tony Cisek's set. Photo by Teresa Wood.
The cast and Tony Cisek’s set. Photo by Teresa Wood.

In District Merchants’ Act I, the Folger stage is in a condition of disarray with a watch-your-step aura. The audience sees building detritus litter the stage as if the ruins after too many a Civil War battle. But quickly the audiences understands that the building debris is not discarded rubbish, but the needed material for a city being renewed for a new generation of citizenry during tumultuous times.

The Folger’s permanent pillars have been wrapped and are accompanied by a number of fabricated columns. Some of the fabricated columns stand tall, another is prone on the stage floor, while others are far from on the horizontal. There is scaffolding and other building paraphernalia strewn about. Things are just askew. All the while even before one word of dialogue, the audience hears sounds of hammering and sawing. James Bigbee Garver did the sound design.

When Act II of District Merchants opens, the audience witnesses the heavy appearing fabricated columns raised into place to stand tall and strong (helped by unseen hinges and a sand bag to give a sense of weight and substance as an almost unnoticed actor uses a hand rope pulley to raise a column from the floor). There is even the sound of the final capping of one last column. The Folger stage space had been transformed into a dramatic framing devise for the final scenes of District Merchants.

Portia (Maren Bush) and Nessa (Celeste Jones). Photo by Teresa Wood.
Portia (Maren Bush) and Nessa (Celeste Jones) in ‘District Merchants.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

District Merchants Assistant scenic designer Paige Hathaway provided additional information about the District Merchants set design in this Folger blog entry.

Two key paragraphs from Hathaway are here: “Our research process began with images depicting this era; cities that were ravaged by battle, buildings that were blown apart, as well as the construction of the federalist buildings in our capitol that have come to represent America. In particular, Tony was intrigued by the primitive temporary structures that were created to help aid construction, seeking to depict a clearly American structure in the midst of being rebuilt.”

“Additionally, he needed to create a space that was still, ultimately, theatrical. There was no attempt to disguise the structure of the Folger itself, as much of Playwright Aaron Posner’s dialogue purposefully acknowledges theatrical conventions and the audience itself.”

Finally, in program notes, Dramaturg Ayanna Thompson wrote: “The subtitle for Posner’s play is An Uneasy Comedy, and the play invites audiences to engage in uneasy conversations about history, relationships, and the potential for radically different futures. Who could ask for more?”  And Tony Cisek’s scenic design adds volumes of unspoken commentary for those uneasy conversations. Cisek’s inspired, superb design shapes the District Merchants visuals for what director Michael John Garces described as the imperfect nature of a “morally treacherous terrain.” Just with some fabricated columns, well-placed debris and from a creative talent who is truly a wizard.

Running Time: Two and one-half hours, with one 15-minute intermission.


District Merchants plays through July 3, 2016 at the Folger Theatre – 201 East Capitol Street SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.


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