Down in New York City's East Village is the Connelly Theatre, a 19th — century proscenium opera house that for the months of January and February was transformed into a lovely netherworld of sky and wheat for Only Heaven, a musical based on the writings of Langston Hughes, a poet and fixture of the Harlem Renaissance. Erik Ulfers' set combined dark and light as the singers performed on the black-and-white-tiled, diamond-shaped stage amid surrounding rows of wheat. Black fiber-optic curtains sparkled on either side of the proscenium, while a large plastic circle dominated the upstage area with lovely images of a blue sky and clouds. Says Ulfers, “It's Duratrans, a plastic that has the image digitally put up and then it backlights through a white diffusion. It's basically a big slide.”
The stage floor was a glossy ¾" Plexiglas, which, as Ulfers says, “appears to be quite light, though it is actually rather heavy.” Each individual fire-retardant wheat stalk was put on a copper metal piping and hand placed into Styrofoam. FX Scenic of Florida provided the stage floor, wheat, and fiber-optic curtains.
Ulfers viewed the set as a kind of purgatory, one that needed to convey the “contrast in Hughes' life, of his Midwestern upbringing and the urban atmosphere. There was that experiential juxtaposition that needed to be visualized or abstracted.”
The costumes by Marianne Powell-Parker suggested the Harlem Renaissance period of the 1920s and evoked a sense of spring and summer. Lighting designer Chenault Spence transformed the set that Ulfers describes as somewhat static (in that there are no major set changes during the course of the piece) “but it [the set] ran a lot of different attitudes with light.”
The very busy Ulfers, whose background is in theatre, also works in the fields of meetings and events and architectural design. He is the co-founder of Production Design Group, and, at the time of this interview was heading off to Israel to consult on the look of, and camera work for, Jerusalem's Channel 2 studio during Israel's February elections.