House

and Garden together constitute Alan Ayckbourn's latest fiendish prank against actors. Both plays take place in, yes, the house and garden of an English estate on the same afternoon. The plays are written to be played in tandem; when an actor leaves the stage in House, he or she usually wanders right into Garden. Naturally, without expert timing, both productions could fall apart in seconds. The curtain calls alone are a true test of performers' nervous systems. However, the plays are turning out to be among Ayckbourn's biggest recent successes. After initial productions at the Royal National Theatre in London, they were warmly received at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. This spring, two major American theatres are presenting them: in New York, at Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC), and at the Alley Theatre in Houston, TX.

The plays are very typical Ayckbourn: an unblinking look at some of the bleaker aspects of English life--depression, madness, divorce, adultery, and alcoholism are all rendered hilarious by the author, as various unhappy people collide and reveal themselves at what is supposed to be a cheerful village fête.

Duane Schuler has lit the MTC production; it's something of a departure for the LD, who is best known for large-scale opera and architectural projects. "I ran into John Lee Beatty [the House and Garden set designer] on the subway several months ago," says Schuler. "He had the theatre call me about this, and I had a four-week time slot open. It just fit in." Indeed, the assignment may not be as unusual as it sounds. "Having done opera repertory, where you change shows every day, is good preparation for this. I saw House in Chicago, when it was lit by Jim Ingalls, who also does a lot of repertory."

For the two plays, Beatty has designed a pair of gorgeous sets, depicting the interior of the estate belonging to the dissipated, wealthy businessman Teddy Platt, as well as a beautiful garden. The action moves from early morning to late afternoon, with time out for a thunderstorm, and Schuler's lighting keeps accurate track of time. "The challenge," says the LD, who spends much of his time at the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, "is working in spaces with a ceiling height of 16'. I've spent more time on these drawings--all of a sudden, a 50º unit is your area light. Also, in Garden, there's this awful air-conditioning duct that goes through the middle of the theatre--now there's a huge tree branch that covers the duct, and most of the grid. The branch kept growing; it was two little lines on the original drawing." He adds, laughing, "We focused with pruning shears. We hung the units first, then built the branch, then adjusted the units around it."

For the designer, it is a novelty to work in small spaces, where "half points matter, as do the sharpness of the gobos. You can fine tune in a space of that size, in a way that you can't in an opera house." Also, because there is no repertory, he adds, "The big pleasure is you don't have to refocus the show every day."

The theatre, Schuler says, "owns a fairly standard [ETC] Source Four package. For Garden, we got some [Wybron CXI] scrollers and some GAM Film/FX loops for the rain. They have real rain, but we use the Film/FX to reinforce it a little bit. I was concerned about them when we first turned them on, because they're about 4' behind the audience and there's noise. But it blends in quite nicely with the sound of the rain."

And of course, as the designer learned, with these productions, timing is everything. "The power for Garden is pretty well loaded up. One leg of the border in Garden had an old fuse and during one preview we lost a 200A fuse in the first act. I was watching House that night, and the stage manager came in and said, 'We have to take a short break, because of a technical difficulty in Garden.' It had gone black, and we couldn't get back in synch, because they had blown a fuse. We ultimately rebalanced the racks to make the power more stable."

With two plays happening at once, Schuler adds that a good assistant has never been more important; Daniel Ordower filled the bill here. "You have to have two sets of eyes," says Schuler. "It's very strange having to decide what show to watch each evening, or splitting them between acts. You can't get into Garden gracefully after it has started and, in that small space, the voms are very busy."

In the meantime, Schuler is off to more typical venues. He has just completed lighting a new Turandot for the Amsterdam Opera and then heads for Santa Fe Opera, where his assignments include Eugene Onegin. Then he goes to Chicago to tech next season's productions at the Lyric Opera and check in with the home office of the theatre consulting and architectural lighting design firm of Schuler & Shook, Inc. However, he adds, "I love sitting in the theatre for House and Garden, feeling the immediacy of it." Sounds like he's developing a taste for gardening.

Manhattan Theatre Club has extended the run of House and Garden through July 28.

Photos ©2002 Joan Marcus.