Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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Playhouse Set Designer Takes Turn at Center Stage

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette

At the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, Lisa Pegnato plays a key role that never requires her to step in front of the audience. This season alone, Ms. Pegnato’s set designs have brought to life an Edwardian-era English country garden in Passionata; 1970s Berkeley, Calif. in Angela’s Mixtape; 19th-century Martha’s Vineyard in Chilmark and the 21st-century home of an affluent Washington, D.C. family in The Room Where I Was Held.

In past years, among many other playhouse productions, she has faithfully recreated a famous Mark Rothko painting for Red (an agreement with the artist’s estate required the work to be destroyed after closing night), and the Dust Bowl desolation of The Grapes of Wrath, with set elements that transformed Lego-like into the Joad family’s truck.

Ms. Pegnato, who lives in Providence, is also an accomplished abstract painter who is showing her work at the playhouse through Oct. 18. The exhibition, called Visions and Visitations, includes 17 of her recent paintings and a model of the set from The Room Where I Was Held.

At an opening reception Sept. 29, Ms. Pegnato chatted with guests including most of the cast of The Room Where I Was Held, who have been inhabiting her playhouse set five nights a week.

Painting and set design are “two different worlds,” she said, standing in front of her luminous Study for Rising Up, a coastal landscape under a dramatic sky alight with pearlescent clouds.

“This is very private, and it’s communicating with an invisible realm, and theatre is so group-oriented.” Ms. Pegnato said. “You have to really balance what your vision is with meeting other people’s expectations and needs and fulfilling their dreams. With painting, it’s just me.”

She first took up theatre work as an art student. “I wanted to make a living with a brush in my hand,” Ms. Pegnato said, noting that earlier painters such as Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall also provided art for stage productions.

She had no idea what she was getting into. “I fell in love” with theatre design, Ms. Pegnato said. “I love reading the script, seeing patterns in the script,” before designing a set.

“You’re sharing stories of humanity,” she added.

The precision with which she translates a script to set — along with the ingenuity to solve the challenges of the small playhouse stage — has made Ms. Pegnato a prized member of artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo’s creative team. Ms. Bruder Munafo cherishes the early drawings of the Grapes of Wrath set, which she has framed and hung in her office.

Ms. Pegnato has also worked for the U.S.S. Constitution Museum in Charlestown, painting a floor map of the War of 1812 for an interactive children’s exhibition. “It was such an honor and a pleasure to work with that group,” Ms. Pegnato said. “Everyone there was a scholar at what they did.”

More recently, she designed an exhibition of images by children’s illustrator Wendell Minor at Heritage Museum and Gardens in Sandwich.

The paintings in the Playhouse exhibition reveal a wilder side to the artist, who grew up running and playing in the woods near her home.

“It was very easy for me to fall in love with nature,” said Ms. Pegnato, whose oils in the show depict birds, fish, water, plants and landscapes — but no human figures — in gleaming impasto on canvas or thick paper.

Her palette ranges from the silvery tones of Black Rock at Lucy Vincent Beach and Two Trees, and the dynamic blacks and greys of Birds and Fish #1 and Birds and Fish #2 to the bright colors of the blue-themed Lotus Pond Triptych and green-orange Lotus Diptych.

In Koi Pond, the fish are golden glittering impulses scattering reflections across shadowed green water. “I’ve had a lot of teachers,” Ms. Pegnato said. “You can see Monet in this.”

Among her other influences, she named Cy Twombly’s brushwork.

Although most of the paintings in Visions and Visitations are inspired by nature, Isle of Colchis (the largest canvas in the show) takes its name from Greek mythology. “It’s where Jason and the Argonauts went to get the Golden Fleece,” Ms. Pegnato said.

Visions and Visitations is on display at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse Lobby Art Space through Oct. 18 during box office hours, which begin at 2 p.m. on Wednesday through Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday. Appointments are available and the lobby may also be open by chance. For more information, visit mvplayhouse.org.

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