Paul Bortnovski

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by Luminita Batali

From an exceptionally qualitative stage design activity and from tens of shows that have marked the history of the Romanian and international theater, under the direction of the great Liviu Ciulei or Lucian Pintilie, this time we shall speak about few of them, namely those specified by Paul Bortnovski in an interview he gave us some time before. Furthermore, we shall leave aside the film production design even if it includes master pieces such as “De ce trag clopotele Mitica?” [Why Do the Bells Ring, Mitica?], as well as the references to the prodigious academic activity of the architect, a pillar of the stage design department within UNAB and founder of the design chair.
Among the furthest in time there is “A Tale from Irkutzk”, in 1960, at Oradea Theater, under the direction of Valeriu Moisescu, him too at the beginning of his career.
This play – a story that takes place on a construction site in the North of Russia, between characters working at the construction of a dam – has been played many times in Bucharest, staged by Jules Perahim, and the stage design sketches and the photographs show an extremely clear image, under the imprint of the architectural formation of the master. For this show, which in Bucharest had been played on a revolving stage and, intending not to repeat this solution, Paul Bortnovski designed a sloped frame. For the play, he also designed a “sky”, a cloth from the background to the foreground and conceived without a curtain, using some Siberian fur trees on two plans, on the left and on the right. From this inclined plan, generating a slope as well, some triangles emerged, looking like some cake pieces, on wheels. This conception created a fixed continuous part where the characters could play and a mobile part because the triangles could be used either to bring in a character, or to suggest a certain dramatic circumstance. Moreover, on the foreground, the stage design created two quick sets in the orchestra pit obtaining here too, on the left and on the right, an entrance for characters.
As we shall see, the master has thought of special stage design solutions for each play separately and we shall recall “The Cherry Orchard”, directed by Lucian Pintilie, in 1967, an event – show with Clody Berthola. We notice here interiors, painted with a dedicated feeling of beauty, dialogues between windows, mirrors … Paul Bortnovski evoked this creation specifying that in his quest for benchmarks for “the noble and peaceful atmosphere of a mansion, of a country estate” he remembered a dining room of the pension in Sinaia owned by his Austrian piano teacher, when he was 6 – 8 years old, a dining room as a veranda, and it's this very veranda he recreated for „The Orchard”, being the central motive of the play's stage design.
Among his first shows there is “The Winter's Tale” by Shakespeare, at the Regional Theater, directed by Ginel Teodorescu. This theater was a cinema opposite Dinamo, and it was called “regional” because it was an itinerant theater. The artist put on the stage of this cinema a small frame on which there was a rotating mechanical device and on top there was the equivalent of a cupboard. Inside there was an entire stage. At certain moment, everything was opened by actors and out of here the setting and the costumes came out … The show started on an empty stage, with the cupboard closed … It had a sort of folding wings, like the satellites' wings, until they covered, almost embraced, the entire stage … By opening they formed a setting in which on the one part there was Sicily and on the other part Bohemia. The sceneries were made of linen so that they should be as light as possible and from this point the painted cloth articulations started (painted or cut and applied leaves). From the plastic point of view, the cupboard seemed an architecture element, a sort of arch of triumph and it was very important from the point of view of the play as not only, starting from simplicity, with its help, under the very eyes of the spectator there appeared the entire magic of the theater but it supported as well the entire development of the setting. In the beginning the cupboard was seen closed by the audience, then the actors came, wearing only some gray costumes on which they dressed up cloaks from the cupboard and made up each character. Then the arms came out, opened … and the setting was made up and when everything was ready the action started with the baby of whom the Queen wanted to get rid and who arrived in Bohemia where he was found, rediscovered … Moreover, the image of the Queen who in the beginning appears as a statue of Mary the Virgin, in the end seemed taken out of the International Gothic. According to the master's confession, it was one of the shows for which he worked with great tenderness.
If for “The Winter's Tale” the major stage design element is the architectural, multifunctional cupboard, in “The Marriage” we see chairs with pedestal, some large objects, deformed, in order to express as best as possible the feeling of heavy … This chair was exaggeratedly huge and became extraordinarily expressive being supported and, a novelty this time in the artist's creation, with a very strong chromatic: green, red. In the stage design economy of the play an important role was played by the massive heavy doors and by two metal stoves with pipe. Under the stove pipes … Draga Olteanu, the play's protagonist, dried her hair.
In “Revizorul” [“The Inspector General”] the atmosphere was dominated by a walnut veneer sofa, huge, hugely designed, another important element of the plantation was a metal foot bridge – used to enter the stage, from above, somewhere on the left. The foot bridge was sloping and rumbling, made of iron making a noise like the noise of the thick sheet, creating many play situation between the journey above – the general inspector as well entered that way – and the dialogues with the people beneath … On the left of the stage there was a sort of balcony, near the curtain, where there were three kolhoz Russian women, singing … when the General Inspector entered … for an “organized” welcoming … The very Russian costumes were made by Miruna and Radu Boruzescu.
„Danton” was the first show at the National Theater in Bucharest, where the artist has been drawn by the idea of the very large scene of the theater. When conceiving the stage design he stared from the ides of valuating this depth, thinking of a pulsating space, now very small, then very deep, repeating an experience he had had with Liviu Ciulei and partly initiated by the director. Instead of the two lateral cloths, he used a sheet, and the background was made of this material, the floor too was made of metal; they moved up and down suggesting as well a balcony in the upper part. The omnipresence of the sheet, even if the idea had not been valuated as incandescently as the artist would have wanted, succeeded in bringing a steel, exasperating aspect … Moreover, in Danton the master created pulsating spaces supporting various moments of the show (the entry of the protagonist in Tuilleries with Robespierre, Palais Royal, the Convention Room with the symbols of the French Revolution …).
From many other creation such as „Vizita Bãtr├ónei Doamne” [“The Visit”] in Brasov, „Caesar and Cleopatra” by B. Shaw, “My Heart's in the Highlands” by Saroyan, directed by Lucian Pintilie, “Nu sint Turnul Eiffel” [“I am not the Eiffel Tower”], we shall recall, in 1975, „Valiza cu fluturi” [“The Suitcase with Butterflies”], a political play by Iosif Naghiu, whose action took place in a house by the seaside. In this stage design the modernist architecture appears. The setting is light, using chemically gray painted linen, through which one could see the blinds outside … and managing to render the sea light as created by the houses of G.M. Cantacuzino in Eforie.
In„Pygmalion” by Shaw, with Forry Etterle and Beate Fredanov, everything was not painted as in an illusionist manner but showing the drawing, the fact that it was a drawing … The show's accessories, the desk and other important objects, were emphasizing the atmosphere.
For 'Victims of Duty” by E. Ionesco, directed by Crin Teodorescu on the Izvor stage, the artist used the proscenium for “The Inspector General” everything happening, from a desire of indefinite, on a piece of white cloth. The stage was empty in-depth and excepting this “cloth” there were some furniture pieces, a chandelier and a table on which the actors mounted. Part of the setting consisted of a surrealistic pendulum by Dali and a lamp … Regarding the setting solution, the intention of creating a soft floor, onto which the character should immerse, was defining …
We also recall the play „Caligula” at the National Theater with Ovidiu Iuliu Moldovan where the main stage design idea was built on pieces of rocks (made of expanded polyester) with an indefinite sculpture aspect, but which created some possible locations.
We could not conclude this brief recall of the huge stage design career of the architect Paul Bortnovski without talking about a remarkable initiative of his for the rebirth of the city. We refer to „Bucuresti - Starea orasului” [“Bucharest – The State of the City”] April - May 1990, the first great free exhibition after Ceausescu, which shall remain a landmark of a unique state. It was the first professional manifestation held after decades at Dalles Hall and meant, as the very title shows, to take the pulse of a city that the dictator's regime has mutilated.
The exhibition was important from other points of view as well, that we see in a clearer light now: it showed us for the first time after '89 an image of the harm the city underwent, as the first condition of its rebirth.

Text presented in the radio broadcast “Arte Frumoase” [“Fine Arts”], on June 30, 2006
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