by Darren Callahan
Charles C. Palia Jr. is one of those Renaissance men who excels at everything… musician, artist, playwright – his life in the theatre has had varied and exciting permutations. Mr. Palia, resident tech director and member of Polarity’s Board of Directors, has made his latest contributions – the set design for Keith Anwar’s original drama for stage, Kabulitis. The show has its press opening Thursday, September 22 at 8:00 pm followed by the Gala Premiere Night Friday, September 23 at Polarity’s resident space, Chicago’s Josephinum Academy in Wicker Park, where the company has produced 8 plays and 3 festivals since 2009. Mr. Palia has been one of the talents behind the curtain to bring these works to life, including authoring and designing 2009’s The Society of Adventurous Women.
For Kabulitis, Palia’s set design had to accommodate both the present and the past. That’s been done before, and done well. However, what if the past is war-torn Afghanistan – an arid country vividly described in Anwar’s compelling story? To achieve this displacement, the walls have been constructed as translucent with decorative screens and motifs behind them. The basement ceiling is reminiscent of a bazaar. Remarks Palia, “The basement ceiling is reminiscent of a bazaar with jeweled lights. The lights are new – very arts and crafts. So going to Michaels and finding colored glasses, transparent jewels and other goodies to make these lights that glow during flashbacks was fun and new!” All the while, Palia makes sure these choices are in harmony with Anwar’s story.
Kabulitis concerns a white, American woman now in her 80’s and suffering from dementia. She has memories of her life with her husband, an Afghani. These memories are so vivid that she believes her husband and relatives live in the basement, fueled by her imagination. She relives moments from her past that are extremely difficult — such as trying to leave Afghanistan before the birth of her son, but being blocked by an unscrupulous government official. Flashing-forward, her now-grown son lobbies his mother to enter an assisted living facility.
Palia continuously reinforces this story with his design choices. “Whenever I design a set I read the script and take notes. I buy a small sketch book and start drawing initial thoughts and impressions. Next, I research Afghanistan homes, Afghanistan interiors, Afghani decorations, and so on. The ones I like I put in a notebook. Then I keep going through the notebook and sketching ideas.” Having never traveled to the Middle East, Palia had to rely on both research and his own inspiration. “The breakthrough for me was an Afghani interior that had horizontal stripes of different colors. So I came up with these stripes in burgundy and dusty rose with white woodworking trim. The light-colored dusty rose panels are translucent. I needed a screen pattern to place behind the set. Interestingly, I came across some inexpensive poultry fencing! In the basement I actually did a three dimensional series of arches from another internet design that are silhouetted behind the brick and concrete muslin wall. The bazaar idea was easy for the basement since I used something similar to that for a production of Necessary Targets. I’ve been designing for a long time, but I’m always surprised by the results and ask myself, ‘Where did I ever come up with these ideas?’”
When asked about the techniques used to transport the audience from place to place, Palia avoids reinvention and, like the main character of Kabulitis, puts an emphasis on past experience. “What’s new is actually old! I haven’t used muslin in years! I didn’t want to make the translucent panels out of scrim because it’s too transparent. Then I remembered that when I used muslin covered flats (well before the invention of luaun) we had to staple cardboard to the backs to keep light from bleeding through. Sometimes we painted them black, but that needs to be done before you paint the fronts.”
is directed by Lavina Jadhwani, Artistic Director of Rasaka Theatre Company, an ensemble dedicated to providing a platform for the artistic expression of South Asian artists. Polarity is working in association with Rasaka on this production to achieve the authenticity and perspective necessary for the script. The script was revised by Anwar shortly after its production in Polarity’s 2010 Dionysos Cup and just before Anwar’s death from liver cancer at age 58, in July 2010.
“It’s very exciting to see the different ethnicities in Kabulitis and the journey they take us through,” adds Palia. “I’d love to rename the Polarity and Rasaka theatre groups and call them Tapestry Theatre!”
Charles C. Palia Jr. (Scenic Designer & Technical Director)
Charles is a retired teacher of theatre, speech and English. Currently, he is on the Polarity Board of Directors and is the Resident Technical Director. Charles has a B.S. degree from I.S.U. in Communications, an M.A. in Theatre Arts and an M.A. in Educational Administration from Northern Illinois University. He is a free-lance designer and a former member of United Scenic Artists. For Polarity, he has designed Ghost Watch, The Society of Adventurous Women (which he also wrote), and now Kabulitis. He was Technical Director for Polarity’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. For fun, Charles plays lead guitar in the classic rock group “Union Jack” and bugle in the Chicago Royal Airs Drum and Bugle Corps.
Story courtesy of Polarity company member, Darren Callahan.