King Lear is the darkest of Shakespeare’s plays because it tells a tale not of individual tragedy but of a world brought to ruin. In contrast to Othello or Romeo and Juliet, in which one or two lives are destroyed, when Lear falls, he takes his kingdom with him. This fact puts a special burden on designers; in any production of King Lear; it’s important to find a visual language that suggests the full reach of the monarch’s tragedy.
This task was well accomplished by scenic designer Karen TenEyck and lighting designer Thomas Hase in a recent co-production of King Lear that played Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. These two artists have created a playing area that provides a constantly shifting landscape of turbulence and tragedy.
The design features a thrust stage covered with dirt; behind it stands a tall steel frame covered front and back with Plexiglas®; behind that is a translucent drop featuring a menacing cloudscape. The concept, says TenEyck, grew out of her discussions with director Edward Stern. "He wanted a very presentational set," she recalls. "The dirt was his idea. The Playhouse is a thrust situation, but Ed wanted a lower grid so you could see the lights—he wanted the lights to be part of the set." TenEyck instead suggested creating a real wall with a steel frame, or grid, which would provide ample lighting positions. "Ed also talked about the natural elements in King Lear, and wanting to show them; I thought it would be interesting to capture them in the grid," TenEyck adds. Thus "there are vents at the top and bottom of the grid, and fans, to introduce fog and make effects," says Hase. "We introduce small quantities of fog in it, then project rain, lightning, and fire on it with light." The fog is generated by Le Maitre’s G300 fog machine. "We started with four, then cut back to two," says Hase. "The fog is introduced from the bottom. Inside the wall, there are four whisper fans, to create turbulence in the fog and on top there are same battery of vents with fans to pull the fog out. The wall fills up in about 20 seconds, swirls like crazy and can clear in about two minutes."
Hase’s concept, working with associate John Frautschy, was to create a completely timeless feel for the play. "By using ideas that the audience can quickly recognize, and then suddenly abstracting them, we never explain anything realistically and keep a tension: is this 400 years ago or 200 years from now?" The lighting plot makes use of both conventional fixtures such as PAR-64s on the wall, with other units placed in overhead and footlight positions for the main deck, with a several systems of ETC Source Fours, outfitted with Wybron color scrollers, to treat the rear wall; and specialty fixtures such as 5Ks with custom strings and 4K HMI fresnels. "The design alternates between interiors defined by very strong shuttered sidelight, very strong shafts of light from behind the wall, and exteriors consisting of powerful soft-light sources of color," the designer says, adding that the systems creating the interiors had "every unit of every system specifically focused to be used alone as a shaft or suddenly expanded to a lane, or a full stage sidelight system of windows." Several of the exteriors used two 5K Arri fresnels and two 4K HMIs as strong diagonal backlights. In the Colorams many colors on the gel strings are the result of two gels, with the second color taped to the first on the string. "No one makes a lot of the colors I would like to use, although Chicago Spotlight and Apollo have stated they will," says Hase. For example, at the end of Act I, for the gouging of Lear’s eyes, there’s a set of shuttered downlights creating a room. "I wanted an odd yellow-green; a mix of industrial and gaslight color. Lee 100 [Spring Yellow] plus Roscolux 86 [Pea Green] was it. This color starts Act II from the 5Ks and then builds through several others into Lee 104 [Deep Amber], which is close to a low-pressure sodium vapor yellow, to create a post-apocalyptic dawn."
In virtually every scene, either the translucent cloud drop is present, lit by bounce light or backlit by mini-strips using Lee 202, or the wall, a strategy that works to unify the space. The wall is also treated with a series of atmospheric effects. "My new favorite thing is the Gamproducts FilmEFX," says the designer. "We use it to make both fire and rain." At certain points the wall fills with fog and rain effects are projected onto it; the bounce light from the back wall lights the fog and bounces onto the drop, thus intensifying the rain effect. Other effects include four Diversitronics Strobe Cannons placed on the edge of the stage to project lightning. Also on the stage’s edge are 250W birdies. "We had glass filters custom-made for them by High End Systems," says Hase. " A 250W birdie is my favorite small source and is brighter and cleaner than a 1K mini-10 source; it makes a great footlight. I can call High End and ask for a color and they make it for you in five days."
In addition, Hase’s design includes his own signature series of templates. "Apollo Design Technology did them for me, and they sell them via Chicago Spotlight. I’ve designed 30 different patterns in two years with more coming. Chicago Spotlight keeps a catalog of them; they cost the same as a normal template. They’re called Hase patterns. I just got sick of the same old summer leaves—so much of what I do now is abstract."
The transfer from Cincinnati to St. Louis required numerous adjustments. "Cincinnati is a much taller space," says TenEyck. "In St. Louis, if often feels like we’ve cut the set in half. Hase adds that in Cincinnati he used virtually all ETC Source Fours, while in St. Louis he was required to use mostly Altman 360Qs, except for "important systems that needed drastic shutter cuts." (In Cincinnati, the HMIs, birdies, and FilmEFX were rented from Cincinnati Opera, where Hase also frequently works.) In both cities, TenEyck notes that the deck has posed many challenges. "All the dirt was put through a flour sifter, to take out any sticks or little rocks," she says. "It’s so refined now that it’s almost like coffee." She adds that the deck is sprayed with Lysol every night, to prevent germs from spreading.
Nevertheless the scenery and the lighting have produced the same effect on both cities, creating a world brought to ruin by evil forces. Other key personnel included costume designer Susan Tsu and technical director Stirling Scot Shelton. King Lear runs through November 9 at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
Photos of King Lear at the Cincinnati Playhouse courtesy of Karen TenEyck