October 31, 2020 at 2:44 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
GALA Hispanic Theater reopens with comedy — and plexiglass
‘This is the first time I’ve used partitions to keep a virus at bay,’ says scenic designer Clifton Chadick. (Photo by Topher Scott)

‘El Perro del Hortelano’
Through Nov. 22
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th St., N.W.
$25-$45
Galahispanictheatre.org

All eyes are on GALA Hispanic Theatre. After closing its doors in mid-March due to pandemic, the Columbia Heights company is re-opening with a genuine live, in-person, indoor production of “El Perro del Hortelano,” or “The Dog in the Manger,” a comedy by the 16th-century Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. It’s a pilot move, so of course GALA is taking thorough precautions – masks, socially distanced-seating, dramatically improved air infiltration, etc., all in adherence with the mayor’s guidelines.

Safeguards extend beyond front of the house. In fact, they can be seen onstage where plexiglass walls separate the actors from the audience. New York-based scenic designer Clifton Chadick says “I’ve done shows where we wanted to create a voyeuristic feeling with transparent walls, but this is the first time I’ve used partitions to keep a virus at bay.”

After replacing a Spain-based designer in mid-July, Chadick, 34, spoke with director José Zayas who suggested they design the show in a way that would address the concerns of COVID-19 and also tell the story in a modern light. “So, we imagined the set as a microcosm in a plexiglass box. It protects actors from audience and vice versa but also establishes a little world where Diana, the controlling central character, lives.”

“The plexiglass creates a sort of terrarium of a Renaissance garden. It’s a striking mix of high fashion and dark and baroque. It’s a comedy, and I feel like audiences who are finally coming out want to have some fun. It will be magical, I hope.”

The work has been a pleasure: Chadick loves taking classics and flipping them: “I have a passion for storytelling and making longstanding stories relevant and visceral for current audiences.”

His involvement with GALA began in 2019 when he was asked to submit a scenic rendering for “FAME! In Español.” Chadick’s idea was selected by the production’s director Luis Salgado, and the bilingual, Latinx-centric reboot of the musical “Fame” proved both a critical and financial success for the company.

Subsequently, Chadick, who graduated from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music with a BFA in theater design and production, was hired to design the set for last winter’s “Exquisita Agonía,” a play about finding life in death by Pulitzer Prize-winning out playwright Nilo Cruz. Chadick says, “Nilo and I were both mourning the recent deaths of our mothers at the time. So, it was a sort of funereal atmosphere all around.”

He speaks zero Spanish, nonetheless the collaboration with GALA works well on different levels: While Spanish is the company’s first language, it isn’t a problem (“I’m not much of a talker. I’ll listen and try to pick up words. If something needs my attention they’ll switch to English.”) Also, working with GALA has reinvigorated his artistic passion: “It feels really good to be an ally during a time when we need to be telling more stories. I feel I’m at the service of something good and you don’t always feel that way.”

Until recently, the Brooklyn-based designer was quarantining with his boyfriend, a science writer, and his sister at his late mother’s house in his hometown near Houston. Working on the house provided a creative outlet during a time of mostly unemployment, he says. But more importantly it was good to be with family.

Theoretically, Chadick could have worked remotely from Texas or his apartment in Bedford–Stuyvesant while onsite people brought his design to fruition, but instead, he opted to come to D.C. After two negative COVID-19 tests, he joined the GALA team for tech week: “Everything has been going smoothly so far. Everyone has been diligently social distancing and wearing masks. There are only 25 seats sold for each show so the theater has the seats taped off and it seems like there is plenty of space between audience members.”

Later this season, Chadick is slated to set design “Tía Julia y el Escribidor” (“Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter”) for GALA.

“Safety remains an issue,” he says. “We’re talking about a clear curtain or some sort of vinyl barrier for the design. We’ll see how things go.”

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