At 7:30 on a Monday night, Art Square Theatre’s dressing room inhales and exhales actors. It’s days from opening night of Cockroach Theatre’s Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer-winning tragedy of the American Dream and its inescapable dismality, rife with hopelessness as protagonist Willy Loman’s sales career Titanics late in life. It’s one of the few plays in history considered both a vital American classic and one of the most done and dusty scripts out there — the “Don’t Stop Believing” of popular theater.
Which is why its slot as Cockroach’s season finale was a surprise — until Creative Director Erik Amblad laid it down.
“This season’s [plays] have all been about the future and past catching up with you,” Amblad says, “and that’s what putting Cockroach together has been like.” So there’s the relevance, why the company’s doing something so classic instead of another Gruesome Playground Injuries. But it goes beyond that. Turning a mainstay of the 20th century into a unique, modern performance, something Amblad would call “very Cockroach,” would take an extra push — one it got from Space Cadets AV, behind which lie Benton Corder and Brett Bolton. “Historically, the play uses slides for scene changes,” Amblad says. “When [director] Troy [Heard] said he wanted to do video projection, I knew he needed to meet Brett.”
Days earlier, Bolton is glued to a swivel chair inside the Light Forge Studios, clicking through vector images and artistic compositions, each representing rooms: hotel rooms, living rooms, bedrooms. Some are new, bright, healthy as far as walls go. Others are beaten, tarnished victims of the elements. And then Bolton starts to move a digital slider. Wallpaper begins to fluctuate, creating what characters in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas probably saw in their darker moments. Bolton says it represents Willy’s perception of the world as his brain crumbles. It’s artistic. But subtle. “It’s just enough to put people in the space and his head,” Bolton says, making a panel of red Victorian wallpaper dilate into grotesque filigree. As he clicks through the different backgrounds — house new, house old — they each represent the backdrop from different scenes, from jumps in time and hallucinations and things that would otherwise take a minute of darkness and that rush to set the stage. “This saves money and fits the space,” Bolton says, each scene slipping in and out of the frame with a mouse drag.
On Monday night, Bolton is using the same clips to do digital interior decoration on the theater’s 12-foot, thin, translucent scrim walls. It’s cue-to-cue day, the first time Space Cadets’ efforts interact with the cast, coordinating the digital and organic elements of the whole production, making sure the call girl and the wallpaper come in at the same time, nitpicking down to a laugh lining up with a digital cue. “When the lights change, we go to the past,” Heard says. Sure enough, when the lights go rosey — as they’ll do when indoors turn to outdoors, a bedroom turns into a sprawling yard years prior — Willy Loman’s chat with his wife in their Brooklyn kitchen turns into a tryst with a girl in a Boston hotel.
All of this could probably be done with slides. But when Loman, played flawlessly by Ernie Curcio, starts to lose his mind, the genius starts to come out. There’s a scene in which Loman’s having a conversation with his dead brother, but still partially lucid in reality. At this point, the walls are undulating, transforming, but caught between the setting of past and present, trying to be in both, the way Loman is throughout the more damaged scenes. And that’s how the production can stay current 64 years after its debut: Combining tech, soundtrack and sharp thespianity, Cockroach’s Death of a Salesman draws on uneasiness so flawlessly it’s impossible not to feel something dark beating on your interior.
“Cockroach has a reputation of doing thought-provoking plays that scratch well under the surface,” Heard says. “Cockroach explores what it is to be alive, and this show speaks to different demographics: the end of life, where we’re at in our 30s and today. Willy believes this American promise, that if you work hard and you’re well-liked, you’ll be successful. But there is no promise.”
The only promise is that, as Cockroach brings its season to a close after a helluva year, its finale will go beyond the company’s comfort zone, testing the limits of its new home. Everything is bigger. The whole space, essentially a boxy warehouse, is used to accommodate more action, more actors (13, compared to the previous record of five) and more movement. “This is the easily the largest show Cockroach has done,” Heard projects from his seat in the audience, his cast front and center. And with that, everyone gets in position. Quiet, please. First cue. Lights up.
Death of a Salesman Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m., April 26-May 19; Art Square Theatre, 1025 S. First St., Suite 110, www.cockroachtheatre.com, $18