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Lia Mantoc's Pictorial Scene Design
By Luminita Batali

We venture to dedicate the following lines to one of the most important Romanian stage designers, who illustrated stages in Bucharest, Craiova, Cluj as a result of her work, marking the recent history of the national theater by significant collaborations with directors such as Vlad Mugur, Alexandru Tocilescu and, most recently, the actor Horatiu Malaele.
This last achievement of Lia Mantoc – accompanied by the wonderful troupe of the Comedy Theater – “The Inspector General”, with Stefan Banica Jr. and George Mihaita in leading roles – defines her stage designer art as an instrument of great suppleness that accompanies the verb theater that the director has chosen for this provocative staging of Gogol's text.
In order to emphasize those means of expression that are profoundly related to the essence of theater, i.e. the accent on gestures, dramatic and visual at the same time, that reverberate more deeply into the sensitive by the counterpoint of these two qualities, the accent on pronunciation, on words and atmosphere – the director needed a very special stage design that supports and accompanies the preeminence of the text and ideas, just like an orchestra accompanies the soloist. Thus, in “The Inspector General” at the Comedy Theater there is almost no scenery. Throughout the play, with a modified stage that allows the performance on an inclined plane, there appear, one by one, and only in the beginning, a few chairs, a small stand, a bed, and then they disappear one by one, leaving only one chair on the stage. Otherwise, this minimalism is an excellent opportunity for comic-dramatic situations – “take a seat!” – an imperative to which each one responds as he can, given the absence of the proper objects. However, the stage design admirably creates the atmosphere necessary to this representation of “The Inspector General” with intense and special message, in a staging that means to take into account our more or less recent history, first of all by a unifying pale chromatic vision, with an intense subjacent gray that colors every object and character, suggesting a world of puppets. Besides, at the curtain opening, the first presences in a diffuse light where one can barely distinguish the objects are a dummy – a real straw man – and two actors that we can hardly identify as living characters, as the director wanted to create this uncertainty of reception. This pastel and colored gray that symbolically unifies the theatrical image, also belongs to the background, to the stage and side-scenes, to the costumes, and it is as well basis for the make-up mask worn by all the characters, except from Hlestakov and his servant, Osip. This type of make-up mask comes out as an echo of the expressionistic accomplishments of the Russian Habima theater of the last century's 20's that particularly involved its power of suggestion and theatrical quality. In this world of gypsum-like characters the colored Russian costumes of the feminine characters have a particular theatrical impact, but in a visual interpretation that connects them to the world of puppets, to which they belong as well. There are costumes suggestively created in strong colors, pink, red, green, in powerful contrast with the prevalent grey. This is where the make-up mask appears again, and I have noted this employment in other Lia Mantoc’s shows, with artistic force and aesthetic refinement of the make-up that characterize the personality and the existential statute – grotesque here – or the spiritual state of a personage, just like only a portrait can do in painting. For example, in “Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Pirandello (Bulandra Theatre, 2000) the tragic expressionist mask of the Mother was remarkable, supported again by the exceptional actors' performance, and the effect that the make-up masked face had through the black veil.
I have also noticed the pictoriality, the creation of an entire atmosphere of the show, by the means of colors in other Lia Mantoc’s famous creations where, along with the invention of objects with theatrical truth, this pictoriality is a real mnemonic support that helps the theatrical performance to subsist many years in the memory of the audience: this is the case for: “Peter”, “Six Characters in Search of an Author” or “The Servant of Two Masters” at the Craiova Theatre, directed by Vlad Mugur.
Because we reminded the invention of objects, in the end we would like to refer once more to “The Inspector General”. The disappearance, the departure of the pleasant characters – Hlestakov and Osip – makes room for the arrival of the real Authority representatives who look like monsters, insinuating a dimension of the sinister in that world of grotesque but still human puppets. In the light that becomes crepuscular once again, two black pig-like silhouettes with gray heads rise threateningly above the human scale, occupying the entire horizon of the characters' world, and also the one of the audience.


In the text written by Edward Gordon Craig especially for Haig Acterian’s book “Pretexts for a Romanian Playwriting”, Vremea Publishing House, Bucharest, 1936, page 8, we meet the following notations: “Let’s take for instance the Czar Nicholas I and …”The Inspector General ”… The Russian censorship had stopped its representation for being a subversive creation. But the Czar… who had been delighted with Gogol’s novels …decided to find out for himself and ordered that the play must be represented at the Palace. Everybody was outraged but the Czar, who, smiling with pleasure at the end, said to the ones around him “Well, Gogol gave to all of us what we deserved, didn’t he?”

Text presented in the radio broadcast “Fine Arts”, 26 of May, 2007

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