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Strokes of Genius--on Any Budget : 'Secret Honor' is set designer Robert W. Zentis' 15th show this year. At this rate, he could break his record of 25 shows in a year.

August 21, 1994|Barbara Isenberg | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

Set designer Robert W. Zentis likes the idea of nearing 60. "It is exhilarating," he says, "to feel myself thinking like a young man with an old and oiled mind."

It doesn't hurt that Zentis apparently also has the energy of a young man. "Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon," a revival of the award-winning play by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone, is Zentis' 15th show this year.

"Secret Honor" is at Hollywood's Fountain Theatre, where Zentis works as resident designer. It opened Aug. 5, just a few weeks after "Brush Strokes" at the Met, on which he designed lights, and the Celebration Theatre's "Lesbian Seagulls," on which he did sets and lights.

At this pace, the 59-year-old designer could top his own record, set two years ago, of 25 shows in one year. Zentis has received so many awards from Drama-Logue alone that he finally ran out of wall space and stopped framing them.

"He has tireless energy," comments Fountain producer Jay Alan Quantrill. "He has so many ideas, and he can always make something out of almost nothing."

This is particularly challenging at the 78-seat Fountain Theatre, a place with flexible seating arrangements, a low ceiling and a low, relatively small stage. The front row of seats is maybe three feet from the stage.

"The more that I design, the more I think it true that set design is a little like poetry," says Zentis, a friendly man with flyaway gray hair. "When you write a novel, impressions are made with a lot of words. But, when you're trying to do haiku, every syllable and word conveys a lot more than it might in another context."

For "Ars Erotica," a play Quantrill wrote about German painter Egon Schiele, Zentis painted the theater's back wall in a painterly style emulating Schiele. He used real birch trees last fall to turn the whole theater into a forest setting for Chekhov's "The Sea Gull."

Zentis designs both set and lights on "Secret Honor." Fees are small in small theaters, and Zentis says he generally receives $500 to $2,000 a show, depending on the play, its complexity, its budget and where it is playing.

He lives relatively simply. His weathered 1986 truck has almost 200,000 miles on it, and he's lived in the same Hollywood apartment house for 19 years. Asked if he can make a living designing sets here, Zentis replies, "Yes, barely. Every now and then, industrial shows (which can pay $20,000 to $30,000 each) save me."

Zentis has been a designer--of plays, operas, industrial shows, even theaters and residences--nearly all his adult life. Raised in the tiny farming village of McKean, Penn., he first studied playwriting at Yale Drama School, then later switched to theater design at Northwestern.

He first came here in the late '60s--to design sets for the Pasadena Playhouse--and he has taught stage design everywhere from Occidental College to UCLA and USC. Over the years, he's also worked at the Mark Taper Forum, but most of his nearly 300 credits have been in such small houses as the Fountain.

"It isn't that I eliminate large shows, which do come along every now and then," says Zentis, "but I like to keep very busy. I don't want to not work. And the creative process is the same no matter where you're working. I'm solving the same kinds of problems in the same kinds of ways whether the show has a stage budget of $3,000 or millions of dollars."

"Secret Honor," for instance, came in on the low end. Scheduled for only three weeks rather than the Fountain's usual six-week run, it had to have a very economical set. Upscale furniture was both rented and donated, with discards from TV's "L.A. Law" helping to keep the cost of its set at only about $3,200.

Zentis, as most designers, also takes staging cues from the script, director, producer and actors. On "Secret Honor," a provocative one-man show starring Philip Baker Hall as the 37th President, Zentis read the script, talked with actor Hall and director Mitchell Ryan, then consulted such reference books as Nixon's memoirs.

The play, which was produced at Los Angeles Actors' Theatre in 1983 and later made into a Robert Altman film, is set in the study of Nixon's New Jersey apartment shortly after his resignation. Walls are lined with historic portraits of Nixon alone and with his wife, Pat, or such people as Eisenhower, Mao and Kissinger.

Sitting out in the audience seats a few hours before "Secret Honor's" first preview, Zentis took a break as assistants finished putting out books, dusting piano keys and vacuuming the carpet.

"Nobody has any idea of all the stuff that goes into making this happen," he said. "Which is the point. They shouldn't have any idea."

* " Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon" plays Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood, (213) 663-1525. Ends Aug. 28. Tickets $15-$17.50.

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