Jennifer Zeyl is drinking beer and bossing people around. Opening night for The Museum Play is only a day away and the actors and designers of Washington Ensemble Theatre are working through the night—sawing, ratcheting, and gluing together Zeyl's design for a surreal natural-history museum. She walks around, giving tips and instructions. This is her eighth set for WET, the theater company she helped found two years ago. There's crap everywhere, a museum-in-progress strewn across the stage: jars, netting, bones, a dusty stuffed crane, a shellacked crab. "It's going to be a long-ass night," she smiles. "Have a beer." Zeyl ducks backstage to instruct an actor in putting casters on a scooter: "It should be able to lean any direction and say upright." She walks onto the stage to consult with the lighting designer, who is cutting a hole in the ceiling for a skeleton puppet. Everyone is cheerful and joking, but busy. I ask if I can help. "How about you glue these magnets onto the backs of these butterflies." I accept my marching orders. I join the party.
"Lower-budget enterprises have the most committed artists," she says weeks later, after The Museum Play has closed its extended run. She could be describing theater, but she's talking about movies she worked on in Rhode Island, where she grew up. The horror films—Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness—were her favorites because of the fervor of their artists, while big-budget pictures like Amistad were distressingly wasteful. "I once got told to walk around with a box of coffee cups just to look busy—for $35 an hour. You could get lost for a day, go to a tittie bar, drink beer, and nobody would notice... I don't ever want to work in movies again unless I'm in charge."
Her mother, a psychologist, and her father, a philosophy professor and well-known translator of Plato, still live in Rhode Island. "I grew up in a cerebral house," Zeyl says, "but I talk like a swamp Yankee." She has self-described problems with authority, doesn't talk down—or up—to anyone, and her energetic conversation bounces from theater theory to building tips to gossip. She says she had a hard time in high school. She hit a few people. She stole a car. (At 13, Sarah Rudinoff, the 2004 Theater Genius, also stole a car.) When one of her friends had been locked in her room by borderline-abusive parents, Zeyl—who is terrified of big dogs—snuck into the house with a raw steak, threw it down a hallway to distract the family Doberman, and sprung her friend, who lived with Zeyl's family until graduation. She can also pick locks.
Jennifer Zeyl is a badass.
After the movies and college, she worked as a painter at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, where she realized she wanted to be a bigger part of the design conversation. She has created sets across this city, but her best work has been at Washington Ensemble Theatre—the company she started with Marya Sea Kaminski, Lathrop Walker, and other friends from the University of Washington's MFA theater program—where she designed Finer Noble Gases, Wonderful Life, Next Tuesday, Handcuff Girl Saves the World, Laura's Bush, Swimming in the Shallows, The Museum Play, and her masterpiece, Crave.
Her design was the keystone for Crave, the badass center of a badass production. WET mounted a full version of Sarah Kane's experimental play, which had been directed all over the world, usually as a chamber piece to be read, not acted. It is a jagged and scorching work—even by Kane's standards—for four unnamed voices who murmur and rail about desire, death, abuse, addiction, frustration, and suicide. In clumsier hands it would be an insufferable wreck. But WET, with guest director Roger Bennington, transformed the potential Hindenburg into the most muscular and harrowing production of the year. WET's theater is a small room, its audience pressed against the stage. The Crave set put viewers at a remove by building a black, ceiling-to-floor wall at the edge of the proscenium, forcing the audience to watch the trapped actors through a letterbox slot cut out of the middle. The performers could disappear but never exit, manipulating the audience with a narrowness usually reserved for film.
"The script has a sense of entrapment and discord," Zeyl says. "And a suffocating accumulation." That's where the water came in: A slow trickle we could hear but couldn't see, beginning partway through the play and running to the end, when the sealed stage held nearly a foot of water that the actors steeped and thrashed in as their characters drowned in misery.
That's the genius of a Jennifer Zeyl design—conceptually robust, beautiful, and efficient, which is not to say minimal. Crave demanded a stark set, but Finer Noble Gases needed a trashed New York apartment. Zeyl didn't just build a facsimile of squalor—she built a cluttered, stinky mess you could live and get scabies in.
Her seeming bossiness is a symptom of a deep drive—the work is too important for screwing around. She has no patience for the sluggish or the timid. She talks egregious smack about big-name directors. One's aesthetic is 20 years old. Another is a plagiarist and a sycophant. "And the real problem with him is that he believes his own press—never believe your own press." She indicts cowardly big theaters: "They have nothing to do with storytelling and craft. People are so afraid of losing money. That's why I'm at WET—the ownership, the investment. We don't have any money to lose." She abuses fringe artists: "You guys aren't making any money—so why don't you rock out with your cocks out? Why the shit aren't you being stars?"
Maybe she expects too much from her contemporaries. Zeyl has an intelligence and a gale-force will that most of her peers, in small and large theater, lack. She makes things—great things—happen. Imagine the average designer explaining this idea to the average director: Here's what we do—put a wall in front of the audience and fill the stage with water. Imagine the laughter—or, worse, polite condescension—that would follow.
But the Crave design, an improbable set of walls and water, got built. Zeyl is not only adventurous—she has a talent for bringing out the adventurer in everyone around her.