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The Chameleon

Jake Broder and band in Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara. Photo by Michael Lamont.

Jake Broder and band in Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara. Photo by Michael Lamont.

The Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse is never the same space twice. In fact, the Audrey morphs so often that if a theatergoer isn’t familiar with the layout, one might assume the Geffen houses three or four stages instead of two. Daniel Ionazzi, the Geffen’s Production Manager, chuckles at the idea. “When we [were designing it], it wasn’t high on the priorities that it be that versatile,” he says.

Yet it is, and that a theater transforms as easily as its actors is not only poetic, it’s fitting. For last spring’s production of Greg Pierce’s Slowgirl, there was seating on both sides of the performance space, only the second time the Audrey had been arranged thusly. Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara, which had a successful run at the Geffen in 2009, converted the Audrey into a lounge straight out of Vegas. During the recent production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland, a spiral staircase and backdrop painted with a sweeping vista of snowy mountains gave the illusion of a much larger set — despite the happy fact that while Seth Numrich wielded a knife and Laura Linney punched on her typewriter, they were within arm’s reach of many audience members.

“Designers have done a great job of understanding how the space works and adapting to it,” Ionazzi says. “They’re really successful at coming up with new ideas that make it look different every time you go in.” Ionazzi and Gil Cates began discussing plans for a second theater in 2002 or 2003. The original inspiration for the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater came from Italy’s Piccolo Teatro di Milano, which was partially inspired by the Teatro Farnase in Parma, Italy. “[The Farnase] has a very deep thrust and is a very beautiful space. The Piccolo is a modern version of that,” Ionazzi continues. “But the idea was to stay away from the nondescript black box syndrome. [We wanted] to give it some character so it could live as it is with a single artist onstage and not have to worry about dressing or decorating the room.”

The team was restricted by the footprint of the property, so they wanted flexibility. They designed the center section’s curve to be fixed, with side seating that wrapped around but could be changed up if a designer so desired. Only a handful of musicals and concerts — Alan Cumming’s I Bought a Blue Car Today, Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara, Mona Golabeck in The Pianist of Willesden Lane and now Murder for Two — have been performed in the Audrey. Still, it’s certainly equipped to maximize auditory pleasure. “It wasn’t specifically designed for concerts,” says Ionazzi. “But the acoustics are conducive to musical performance.”

Still, with its many and attractive attributes, Ionazzi says his favorite aspect of the Audrey is its intimacy, namechecking The Jacksonian. “To see that caliber of performer so intimately is great,” he enthuses. “That’s been the highlight of that space. That’s what’s been remarkable — that you’re so close, and that it can transform and be different things.”

It’s hard to tell whether he means the actors, or the Audrey.

Murder for Two begins in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse May 26. To purchase tickets, please click here.