There's something wrong with an LD's world when his Broadway show has only one set and his Off Broadway gig has seven, but that's exactly the challenge that faced Rui Rita this past fall, when he took on the job of lighting two dramas that probe the darker sides of friendship and family ties.
First up was Arthur Miller's The Price, revived this summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival in a production directed by James Naughton, then brought to Broadway's Royale Theatre by producer David Richenthal. Miller's 1968 play focuses on a pair of long-estranged middle-aged brothers who meet in the attic of their childhood home to sell off the family furniture; both are forced to re-examine the choices they made following their father's mental collapse in the Great Depression.
Naughton's production forgoes naturalism, a fact that becomes obvious when the curtain rises on Michael Brown's set, which features two dizzying piles of period furniture, placed on a raised deck, set against a steely New York City skyline. Rita's lighting design closely follows the dramatic action. It opens with what the designer calls the "attic in the clouds" look, in which T3 striplights are placed below the deck to create an otherworldly uplighting effect.
Rita's design follows the play's time frame, which stretches from late afternoon to early evening. Through much of the first act, the look is "dusty, natural attic lighting," with a Reel EFX DF-50 Diffusion hazer to simulate dust-filled air. "There are pale blues and lavenders for the beginning of the first act. There's a considerable amount of multicolored split gel--blue, yellow, and green--that's used to tie in the stained glass rosette placed in the set's ceiling." (Except where noted, the designer uses Rosco colors). A series of carefully chosen specials highlight certain pieces of furniture, including a harp and a gramophone.
In the second act, however, as the filial discussion turns ugly, the lighting changes, too. Rita says the actors' light stays consistent--"basically in a Lee 201-Lee 161 range"--but elsewhere he cast an increasingly golden sunset on the backdrop and ceiling that mirrors the emotional intensity onstage. "To set off the golds, I did a dark blue horizon on the backdrop; it starts as dark blue at the bottom going to almost a purple on the way up and gold at the top." As the play winds down and both brothers are stripped of their illusions, the sunset gives way to a cold, nighttime look.
Rita adds that "one system of diagonal frontlight" does most of the design's work. "As the play continues, I take away the fill from other angles, creating a harder, sharper look." By coaxing the play away from strict naturalism, Rita's design helps give The Price (below) a style of its own.
On the other hand, Rita's design for Donald Margulies' Off Broadway drama Dinner with Friends, now at the Variety Arts Theatre, was all about naturalistic detail, and plenty of it. Dinner with Friends (above) traces the seismic shock set off when Beth and Tom, a couple in their early 40s, announce their impending divorce. Their best friends, Gabe and Karen, find themselves forced to take sides, along same-sex lines; then these friendships start to crumble, too. This keenly observed tragedy of manners takes place in a number of locations, for which Neil Patel designed seven fully dressed sets. "And," adds Rita, "they're all postage stamp-size, lit seven different ways."
He's not kidding. Aside from a system of diagonal frontlight on both sides of the stage, and one backlight system, each scene had its own system, which means, he adds, "Everything else was done with great economy." The designer adds that his approach was "complete realism. We need to believe that, from portal to portal, we are in these people's lives."
Thus scenes in Gabe and Karen's kitchen and living room are warmly designed, as opposed to a bitter argument in Beth and Tom's bedroom, lit with chilly winter light. The front diagonal truss is used for three sets which are shaped like pie slices; for a scene where Karen and Beth have lunch on Karen's front porch, the set is so shallow that "there's no room for backlight, or anything else, except crisp sidelight that flatters their skin and also suggests sunlight." The play ends with Gabe and Karen nervously evaluating the state of their own marriage. "It needed to end with just two scared faces in bed," says Rita, who provides just that with a pair of specials.
In Act I, scene transitions are covered by a falling snow pattern projected on the show curtain; in most of Act II, a moving cloud pattern does the same. Both are created by City Theatrical EFX Plus2 scenic projectors. The show's other big effect, the lights of Tom's car through a living room window, is created by "two PAR cans on a boom that a stagehand swings, cued to the sound effect," says the LD wryly. "It's very high-tech."
Dinner with Friends had an out-of-town tryout, at the Rich Forum of the Stamford Center for the Arts, in Connecticut, a venue considerably bigger than the Variety Arts. Because of that, and also time considerations, the LD says, "We did two full rentals and preloaded-in the electrics in New York. For Stamford, I created a truss system that basically duplicated the Variety Arts grid."
The two productions happened virtually simultaneously, so Rita relied heavily on the expertise of associate lighting designer Paul Miller on The Price and assistant lighting designer Ben Stanton on Dinner with Friends. Other personnel on The Price include production electrician Donald Beck and electrician Joseph Beck; production electrician on Dinner with Friends is Steve Cochrane, with Sue Pitino running the light board.
Speaking of equipment, both shows make nearly total use of ETC Source Fours, with the exception of the T3 strips on The Price and Altman units used as pin spots for the finale of Dinner with Friends. Both shows are run on ETC Obsession consoles. One side note: Rita adds that, of The Price design team (including Brown, costume designer Laurie A. Churba, and sound designer Jerry M. Yager), he is, at 30, the oldest, giving Broadway a much-needed infusion of young blood.