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A dramatic transformation

Michael Valvo, creative director/owner of Red M Studio, designed the Huntington Theatre Company's VIP Lounge. Michael Valvo, creative director/owner of Red M Studio, designed the Huntington Theatre Company's VIP Lounge. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / May 15, 2008

The basement of the Boston University Theatre used to be all about function: bathrooms, coat check, bar, and storage. But the transformation of a funky utility closet into the Huntington Theatre Company's new VIP Lounge, which officially opens tomorrow with the first performance of "She Loves Me," has suddenly made a visit to the basement a must.

The once-dingy white room is painted a warm burgundy. The rich color and spare, off-kilter design creates a romantic, dreamy feel, which North End-based interior designer Michael Valvo says is exactly what he was looking for.

"We wanted to bend reality and add to the dream feeling by creating the impression that everything is floating," says Valvo, whose company, Red M Studio, works with both commercial and residential clients. The room, he says, needed to reflect the world the Huntington creates, and provide Huntington Circle members (donors who give an annual gift of $1,500 or more) an elegant place to meet and mingle before and after a show.

Valvo bends reality by removing, altering, or softening expected angles. A burgundy bench framing two sides of the room has no obvious support, and lamps and picture frames are hung slightly askew.

"In my normal interior-design work, I might ask contractors to make something float, and it's a problem," Valvo says with a laugh. "Here at the theater, when I asked the Scene Shop if they could make a fish look like it's jumping out of a picture frame, they said 'sure.' "

The Huntington's Scene Shop foreman, Brian Sears, says Valvo's requests are all in a day's work.

"We are masters of the odd," Sears says. "We try to do whatever a scenic designer needs to help tell the story. But most designers give us detailed drawings. Mike just talked about a dreamy, mystical feel, and that gave us an opportunity to be creative."

Sears says his crew is used to fabricating 100 percent of every production's set, and Valvo's efforts to engage both his crew and the paints department will give patrons a little insight into the work that goes on behind the curtain at the theater.

"We wanted to give people a feeling of backstage access," says Valvo, "but our original idea of turning the room into a dressing room was a little too trite. Then [production manager] Todd Williams said, 'Let's just raid the props department and find what works.' "

Valvo said he was amazed at what they found. "There are shelves full of busts, fake plants, frames, lamps, everything you can imagine that might've been used to dress a set in a production," he said. "Some of the pieces are quite impressive."

In addition to the floating fish, the new VIP Lounge also includes a landscape scroll that unfurls in and out of another frame, a gorgeous Italian lamp with an elegantly fringed shade, and set pieces that recall specific productions (see if you can pick out the piece from "Love's Labours' Lost"). There's also a flat-screen TV and a bar for patrons to enjoy before the show and during intermission.

"We like to treat our donors well, and we do offer them a variety of services," says Howard Breslau, the Huntington's director of development. "This room gives Huntington Circle members a unique place to go to socialize. But the space had to be playful, in keeping with what we do at the Huntington."

Even if you're not a member of the Huntington Circle, you can peek in past the gold cord at the door for a glimpse of Valvo's creation. "Theater is about imagination," he says. "I hope the room stirs people's imaginations."

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