Marquis Value Production designer Martin Childs approached the quasi-historical drama Quills, which focuses on the Marquis de Sade's latter days at Charenton, like a puzzle. "The event in Doug Wright's screenplay, I came to realize, could only happen if all the rooms were in a certain relationship to one another," says the designer, an Oscar winner for Shakespeare in Love. "It became a puzzle to work out how that could be done - and then, to turn that back into architecture as it might really have been, rather than taking the real architecture of Charenton Asylum, and try to force the story into it, which might not have worked."
The time of the Philip Kaufman movie, based on Wright's play, is the early 1800s; the place, Napoleonic France. The Marquis (Geoffrey Rush), notorious for both his sexually outre fiction and his similar real-life exploits, has been committed to the asylum; here, he lives in comparative comfort, surrounded by his favorite things, including his all-important collections of dildos and writing quills. He continues to compose his lurid novels, which are smuggled out of Charenton by the laundress (Kate Winslet). But when a stern administrator (Michael Caine) arrives to supplant the kindly priest (Joaquin Phoenix) who runs the asylum, the Marquis' privileges are gradually stripped, until he is left naked in a bare cell - no pen nor ink nor dildo in sight.
So he whispers his latest story through Charenton's decaying walls. Passed from inmate to inmate, it finally reaches the kitchen, where the laundress dutifully writes it down. "You have to establish that that could happen in this building," says Childs, who built the set at Pinewood Studio in England. "In order for there to be lines of communication between the rooms, then it was essential that the building take on a life of its own. Once you establish that there is weather not only outside the building, but inside it, that the walls are leaking and almost seem to move with drippage at certain points, you can believe that there are holes between the cells where communication can take place."
The set was unusual in that the rooms were built adjacent to each other, just as it plays in the story-passing sequence. "We didn't employ the `magic of cinema' here," Childs says. "It was so the people playing the inmates could understand how the scene worked." Since the asylum set was built as one large piece, it took up a lot of space, but a bend in the corridor of cells helped it fit snugly on the Pinewood stage. "In a way," says the designer, "that was the first thing I thought of, to get that bend so when you stood at one end of the corridor, you got a series of arches, and in the final, tiny arch, you would get a glimpse of the `forbidden' cell - the Marquis de Sade's cell."
The real Charenton is no longer extant in its early 19th-century form, and Childs' research revealed that the building was a centuries-evolving structure. "That gave us the chance to use lots of different periods of French architecture," he says. "So whenever you got close to the bowels of the building, I would employ the architecture of French Cistercian monasteries, and once you got to certain exteriors, I was able to use 18th-century facades. This gave the sense that the building had been there forever."
The asylum exterior was shot at Luton Hoo, a 19th-century English country home previously seen in such films as Eyes Wide Shut and Mrs. Brown, also designed by Childs. "One of the fortunate things about the UK is that in the 19th century, it was fashionable for people to build grand houses in the manner of the French 18th century," he says. "We Frenchified Luton Hoo further by adding chateau-like roof shapes and a facade. Which again, was useful dramatically, because at the end of the film the chateau burns down, and it gave us something to destroy without destroying the underlying building."
Childs' next film after Quills was From Hell, a Jack-the-Ripper tale shot in Prague, on a huge East End of London set. The designer would like it to be known that stories of period ghouls - or period anything - don't comprise his only specialty. "I don't want people to think I can't do modern," he says. "I long to - like Helena Bonham Carter - burst out of my corset and do Fight Club."
Quills will be released in November by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Why do plays go out of town? To make changes out of the public eye, of course.
Those days, I'm afraid, are gone forever. Witness the case of Seussical, the musical, which opened in Boston to mixed reviews. Every alteration to the show - large or small - has been reported extensively on professional theatre websites (not to mention in The New York Post). For all the privacy they've gotten, they could have opened in Times Square during rush hour.
In the old days, when a musical had problems, a book doctor was called in, or a new director or choreographer. Now they fire the costume designer. That was the unfortunate fate of Catherine Zuber, late of Seussical. Apparently, the trouble started when director Frank Galati didn't want the show to look too much like a Dr. Seuss book and the design team honored this wish. According to a review in Variety, Eugene Lee's set is "basically a black void." About the costumes: "Neither the show nor Zuber indulges in visual anthropomorphism: The cast members always look human." By that time, however, panic had set in and Zuber had been fired.
It's one of the real hazards of the profession: Designers often pay the price for other people's errors or indecision. The real problem, by all accounts, was not the clothing. It was a conceptual issue: Galati and Co. didn't know what kind of show they had. Is Seussical children's theatre or fun for all ages? Should it look like a Dr. Seuss book or a sophisticated Broadway show? Zuber gave them what they wanted, only then they didn't want it.
On the plus side, the news is that Seussical has a fantastic score and an appealing cast. The new costume designer, William Ivey Long, is certainly one of our great design imaginations, and, as we go to press changes are being made to the scenery (as well as the book). So things may work out yet; the show opens November 9. As for Zuber, I expect to see her name attached to other projects very, very soon.
Also slated for Broadway this month is a revival of The Rocky Horror Show. David Rockwell, the king of restaurant design, has long wanted to do a big musical; now he gets his chance. Others onboard include David C. Woolard (costumes), Paul Gallo (lighting), and Richard Fitzgerald (Sound Associates). The, ahem, diverse cast includes Joan Jett, Dick Cavett, and Lea Delaria. Of course, Rockwell's restaurants just keep coming, One of the latest, Strip House (that's "strip" as in "steak"), just opened in Greenwich Village, a few blocks from the offices of Entertainment Design.
To me, anyway, the most exciting news of the season is the scheduled Broadway revival of Follies, the James Goldman-Stephen Sondheim musical, about a reunion of aging showgirls that takes a terrifying, surreal turn. This project is one of the great design challenges and the assembled team is a fascinating one: Mark Thompson (scenery), Theoni V. Aldredge (costumes), Hugh Vanstone (lighting), and Jonathan Deans (sound). The combination of one of the West End's top scenery and lighting teams with a legendary Broadway costumer and one of our best sound designers is very, very exciting. The production starts performances in March.
This month's ED Online Exclusive is The Witches of Eastwick, which is the big new musical in London's West End. Light years from that production's glitz and spectacle is the new West End musical Beautiful Game, by Ben Elton and Andrew Lloyd Webber. But anyone who associates Lord Lloyd Webber with dancing cats and falling chandeliers is in for a major shock. Beautiful Game is a sad, even tragic, story about young people in Belfast, their lives ruined by sectarian violence. Under the direction of Robert Carsen, the show has a remarkably stark look. The stage is bare, with only a few bits of furniture for each scene. To suggest the violence of Belfast, someone has taken an axe to the proscenium arch and hacked away large sections of it. The lighting is mostly no color from the side or very high positions. No one will ever mistake this show for The Phantom of the Opera. Michael Levine designed the sets, with costumes by Joan Bergin (better known for her work in films), lighting by Jean Kalman, and sound by Martin Levan. The overall critical response was not too beautiful, although reviewers noted the show's serious ambitions and unusual design. My favorite news item of the month comes from the Los Angeles Opera, where artistic director Placido Domingo has announced that the folks at Industrial Light and Magic will design effects for a new production of The Ring Cycle scheduled to begin in 2003. According to the press release, "Even as modern stagecraft has failed in the realization of the totality of Wagner's cinematic imagination, the choice of ILM as a collaborator was inevitable to the success of this project." And may the Force be with you, too. Whether this is a brilliant idea - do serious Wagnerians really want this sort of thing? - or not is something only time will tell. The only part about this I don't like is having to wait three years to see how it comes out.
Notable productions from all over: Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, revived to Timon of Athens; reviewers were fascinated by Walt Spangler's set, described in The Washington Post as "a modernist glass-and-steel wall that tilts across the stage like a toppling skyscraper." The review added, "Costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy has an 80s noveau-riche look down pat, draping actors in loose Armani-esque suits and then sticking sneakers on their feet." (Lighting: Amy Appleyard; sound: Brian D. Keating)....Also in DC, Arena Stage revived The Great White Hope, the play that put Arena on the map over 30 years ago. Scott Bradley's boxing-ring set and Lap-Chi Chu's lighting attracted attention. (Costumes: Rosemary Pardee; sound: Michael Keck)....The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park revived Inherit the Wind and The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote, "Karen TenEyck's set design accents the directorial vision. A mural of the Creation, fronted by a cutout main street of small-town America, sets the backdrop, but the action plays on a series of small square platforms that suggest a stage within a stage." (Costumes: Kristine Kearney. Lighting: Peter Sargent....Judith Viorst's classic children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day was staged at the Children's Theatre of Minneapolis; according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, "Christopher Acebo's gorgeously distorted mega-sets, full of imposing furniture, drills home the message that little Alexander is up against a very big world." (Costumes: David Zinn. Lighting: Geoff Korf. Sound: Tim Knox.)....Work Song, a new play about Frank Lloyd Wright, is a co-production of Milwaukee Rep and Steppenwolf Theatre. Kent Dorsey's sets take on the daunting task of recreating some of Wright's famous interiors. Others onboard include Karin Kopischke (costumes), Chris Parry (lighting), and Barry G. Funderburg (sound)....San Diego's Old Globe Theatre has gripping new version of The Trojan Women; says the Union-Tribune, "Ann Hould-Ward's costumes and Ralph Funicello's set mix classical and contemporary, columns and statuary with the urban detritus of chain-link fences and fires burning in trashcans." (Lighting: Peter Maradudin; sound: Chris Walker)...The Green Bird flopped on Broadway but earned kudos at the Berkeley Rep in another version of the Carlo Gozzi comedy, adapted by Steven Epp with Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Dominique Serrand's sandbox setting, Sonya Berlovitz's costumes, and puppets by Peggy Snider, Steven Epp, and Vincent Graciuex all earned compliments.
Finally, Chicago critics flipped for the Chicago Shakespeare revival of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Hedy Weiss, in the Sun-Times, positively gushed over the design: "The production's visual splendor - William Bloodogod's minimalist set, with its gorgeous garden backdrop, magically lit by Anne Militello, Deborah Dryden's exquisite Edwardian-era frocks and traveling cloths, and the flawless sound design of Jeremy Lee - merits a long discussion all its own." However, everyone agreed that the real star of the evening was Zorro, termed "a brilliant, four-legged thespian," in the all-important role of Crab. As Weiss wrote, "Just give that dog a Jeff Award!"