In designing Black Mask, a mystery rooted in detective fiction of the 1930s and 40s, LD Michael Gottlieb had the formidable task of reinventing the noir genre for the stage. Director Damon Kiely (who co-wrote the piece with Frank Bradley) envisioned a play that did not rely on the cliches of film. Gottlieb remarks, "We wanted to avoid doing a parody. If you made it too much in the style of film noir, then you would make those associations in your mind. There would be little worth doing onstage."
What Gottlieb did was reinterpret the genre for the stage, while using the fundamental elements of noir--sharp angles, shadows, silhouettes. The mobile set, designed by Vicki R. Davis, consisted of venetian blinds on rollers that the actors shifted around the stage to form different playing areas. The blind panels could also be lit to throw shadows or reveal the silhouettes of characters.
In Black Mask, private dick Jake Willow encounters some unsavory characters. For Gottlieb, the image of blinds in a detective's office evoked a Philip Marlowe-like world, but "once you introduce multiples of something, you're changing the idea behind it. You're accepting the venetian blind as a literary element, but you're expanding it and throwing it at every angle. You throw out the reference of the cliche. You say okay, hereit is, now forget about it. And you go from there."
Gottlieb placed instruments so that the light both hit the blinds and reflected off them. When the blinds were placed at a sharp angle to the lights, "the angle would become oblique and could cast long shadows." In one scene, where Willow's office is ransacked, "lines are going everywhere because all the panels are at angles to the lights that are hitting them." In conveying the moody quality, Gottlieb experimented with the way "angle and the intensity of the lights affect psychology." Adding to the effect of the rolling blinds were templates of blinds, which, when a moving panel hit them, would also multiply the oblique patterns the designer wanted.
But in reconceiving noir for the stage, Gottlieb took a very different route indeed. He employed single colors (the show involved little mixing) to flood the stage with vibrant colors at various points, indicating emotion and character. He mainly used saturated red (GAM 250 Medium Red XT), blue-green (Lee 116 Medium Blue-Green), and lavender (Lee 180 Dark Lavender) to add to the "psychological layers." Besides 27 WFL PAR-64s, he used 20 Altman 6" fresnels, two 10" Colortran ring-focus studio fresnels, six ENH birdies, one 14" scoop, one mini-ten, and an outdoor floodlight. To supplement the inventory of the Ontological Theater at St. Mark's Church in New York, where the play was performed last summer, Gottlieb rented two 6x16 and 13 4 1/2" Altman ellipsoidals from Big Apple Lights, and used an ETC Vision board for control.
Black Mask began as a workshop in which the actors developed the movement of the piece based on the architecture of the space. The illumination evolved along with the choregraphy, and Gottlieb says the project was "about where the light was and how the actor moved into it." He laughs that his light plot "made perfect sense for the play, though it might not make sense to a designer coming to deconstruct the show."