Many contemporary playwrights, all too aware of the economic and logistical constraints involved in putting on a straight play, will limit their scripts to one setting. Sometimes, they might have the action take on an inventive quality that allows a unit set to function as many different types of environments. But David Lindsay-Abaire’s Boston-set Good People, which runs from October 21st to November 16th on Geva’s mainstage, is a seriously naturalistic play with five distinct locations. The contrast between two of these scenes, the working-class duplex apartment of the play’s protagonist and the beautiful home of a wealthy doctor, provides a crucial expression of character and theme. How would Geva’s Good People team, including scenic designer Jo Winiarsky, create these multiple settings on one stage with very little backstage space? The solution lay in one of theatre’s oldest devices, colloquially known as periactoids (sometimes called “periaktoi” or, in my high school’s scene shop, “pterodactyls”).
A periactoid (from the Greek word for “rotate”) is a triangular tower that can display a different scenic element on each of its three sides, while the other two sides remain invisible to the audience. It is unclear when periactoids were brought into use, but their first mention in extant text was by Roman writer and architect Vitruvius around 14 BC. He described them as “revolving prismatic machines each having three types of decoration, which when there is an imminent change of plays or the arrival of gods with sudden thunder, are turned and change the type of decoration on their panels.” Modern American plays don’t generally have so much god-heralding thunder, but the technical definition still works fine.
Later, periactoids were a staple of Renaissance theatre. They came into particularly widespread use in Italy during the 17th century. The most iconic use of periactoids on the modern American stage is probably as the main element of the minimalist set for Broadway’s A Chorus Line. In that enormously popular 1975 (through 1990) production, one side of each tower was covered in Mylar to create a stage-spanning mirror for the finale.
These set pieces, capable of switching between scenes easily and quickly, have an inherent economy that makes them an extremely popular design choice for community and school groups. But if you’ve seen periactoids used for razzle-dazzle as in A Chorus Line, or for collectively tripling as an ocean and a mansion and an army base at some middle school’s South Pacific, don’t get the wrong idea about Good People’s set. The production’s four periactoids aren’t there for spectacle, but they’re also not flatly painted, expository backdrops to be pushed around by the actors. Each side is textured and detailed like any realistic set, and they move on a series of automated turntables. In Good People, David Lindsay-Abaire writes about his real hometown. Few contemporary plays possess as strong a sense of place. This type of scenery is perfect for bringing Boston to Geva’s mainstage with fluid, simple life.