One of the more fondly remembered stage productions of the last 20 years is the Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Using little more than a company of talented actors and a spare design, adapter David Edgar and directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird created a theatrical page-turner that became an international hit.
However, Nicholas Nickleby was something of a theatrical dead end, a fabulous one-time-only event that inspired few imitations. In London, the theatre company Shared Experience has adapted other 19th-century novels to the stage, including Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice, to some acclaim. In New York a stage version of Dostoevsky's The Possessed (running a mere three and a half hours) was coolly received three seasons ago.
Now comes The Cider House Rules, adapted by Peter Parnell from John Irving's best-selling novel. Cider House is the product of Book-It Repertory Theatre, a Seattle-based company run by Jane Jones and Myra Platt, which is dedicated to translating great works of literature to the stage. The company has adapted works by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Graham Greene, Dorothy Parker, Colette, Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver, and others. (Next up for the 1999-2000 season is Kate Chopin's proto-feminist novel The Awakening.)
The Cider House Rules has had a lengthy and complicated existence. It was first produced in its entirety (two parts, running nearly seven hours) in 1996 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, under the direction of Jones and Tom Hulce. This was followed up by a production at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum in June 1998, where the piece got national attention, including a mixed notice in The New York Times.
Nevertheless, The Cider House Rules came to New York in May, when the Atlantic Theatre presented the production's first half, subtitled Part One: Here in St. Cloud's. The overall critical reception was strongly favorable, but another so-so Times review raised questions about the staging of Part II.
Despite these vicissitudes, there was a lot for audiences to like in The Cider House Rules, even those normally allergic to Irving's novels. In fact, the author proved to be an excellent candidate for translation to the stage; like Dickens, his works feature solid plot construction and a gallery of vivid, eccentric characters. Even better, the complex narrative of Cider House, which covers several decades, is built around a sharply argued debate on a perennially hot topic: the morality of abortion.
As Cider House traveled America, its design evolved. Seattle Rep staged it in three different incarnations, with various designers participating. At the Taper, a modified thrust not unlike New York's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, the team included set designer John Arnone, costume designer David Zinn, and LD James Ingalls. For the New York production, staged in Atlantic Theatre's space, a renovated church social hall, Arnone and Zinn repeated their assignments; they were joined by Adam Silverman.
Silverman is an interesting young LD, whose diverse resume includes work for Houston Grand Opera, Welsh National Opera, and Opera Ireland; stage productions for Royal Shakespeare Company (Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair), Dublin's Gate Theatre (Cyrano de Bergerac), and Washington, DC's Shakespeare Theatre (As You Like It). His most recent New York credit, before Cider House, was Power Plays, a trio of one-acts by Alan Arkin and Elaine May produced by ManhattanTheatre Club in spring 1998.
Silverman's elegant work on Cider House made a crucial contribution to the production's overall effect. The designer's use of subtle yet constantly shifting cues gave the action a cinematic pace; as a result, the production's three-hour-plus running time moved speedily to its cliffhanger conclusion.
The Cider House Rules focuses on two protagonists: Dr. Wilbur Larch (Colm Meany), who runs a New England orphanage, where he quietly performs illegal abortions, and Homer Wells (Josh Hamilton), the institution's most rejected foundling, who eventually becomes Larch's surrogate son, but comes to oppose the doctor's freethinking ideas. The action of Here in St. Cloud's covers 10 years, from the late 20s to the late 30s, with flashbacks to the 19th century that explain the central traumatic episode that solidified Larch's thinking about abortion. In Jones and Hulce's production, a cast of 19 told the sprawling story on Arnone's skeletal two-story set.
Silverman cheerfully admits that the Atlantic Theatre, not the most equipped theatre in town, was a rather challenging venue. "This show has maybe more equipment than they've ever had in there. We were completely maxed out on power. I would have loved to have a little more control and a little more instrumentation." Production manager Richard Burgess estimates the size of the rig was 200 units--in fact, not an overwhelming amount for such a complex show.
Fortunately, Silverman says, direc-tors Jones and Hulce were compatible collaborators. "They were very realistic about what they wanted. It wasn't one of these productions where you have the script and you've seen a couple run-throughs and you just do it. They were very clear about what each scene meant. But when we got onstage, what it looked like was very much left up to me. They didn't interfere, in terms of saying, 'It was done this way in Seattle,' or, 'In LA, it was done that way.' "
Silverman notes that his background helped him design Cider House, with its constant flow of cueing and shifts of scene. "I come from dance. You have so much responsibility there; you're the one that tells the story. The place, the time, the emotions that come out, all have to be described in lighting. Also, I work in postmodern opera, often with [production designer] Paul Steinberg and [director] Christopher Alden, so I often have a unit set that has to be a million things to a million people. That's become a very natural environment to work in."
Even with such a complex project, Silverman works in a singular way. "I work over the tech. I want the people there, which doesn't mean I call rehearsals to work on lights. But I work really fast when the people are onstage. Rich Burgess said, 'I thought this would be a problem. You didn't want any cueing time and it's this huge show and every scene is lit by the time they're done with it.' But to me that was just the quick first draft. In theatre, when you have the luxury of a week or two of previews, you can really get down and nuance the show. I can work on a show forever. As long as there's a monitor in the house, I'm never done."
For Here in St. Cloud's Silverman chose a severely limited color palette. "I tried to keep it in a range from no color to a very light blue (L202), then I skipped to a much darker blue (R80). The only other color was the sepia orange (Lee 158) that I used for flashbacks, set in the 1890s. I wanted to do something to give a different tone to those scenes. Textually, the flashbacks are very clear, but I was afraid it would become unclear visually. It needed another layer. I felt that adding another tone, another color underneath it all, would help to tell the story."
Speaking of the design, Silverman says, "It's very much like a rep dance plot. I'd say it's a very difficult lighting space. There are so many lower pipes that are there for structural reasons, to hold the eaves of the building in place, that you're always fighting shadows. The focus was really tedious in that way. The crew was great, but you start to feel guilty moving yet another light 3" to avoid another obstacle." The overall plot consisted of ETC Source Four units, plus PAR cans.
The LD also used footlights to create huge shadows at certain key moments, such as a fetal autopsy in Act III. "The clinical scenes are almost overlit, with very bright white light," says the LD. "I threw in the center footlight and it created a great shadow of Homer looming over the autopsy," a dramatic moment where his attitude about abortion begins to change. The look, Silverman adds, is "a repeat of the end of Act II, where you see the two shadows," of Homer and Larch, whose roles are beginning to reverse themselves. Other touches, such as a lightbox behind the second floor window and a unit aimed directly at a stage right door, made no pretense at naturalism. "There was no hiding any of the theatricality," says the designer.
The show was run off an ETC Express 250 console. "There are 100 cues for each act," says Silverman. "The board operator, Kathleen McClancy, is fabulous. She has incredible endurance. We had some very intense sessions--there were four 10-out-of-12s, plus extra tech days. She was always there, every morning and every night. Also, Mike Jones, my assistant, was terrific."
At presstime, plans for staging Part II had been officially abandoned, which meant that Silverman's design (which he says would have included more color) will probably never be seen. However, he says of the experience, "It was a lot of fun to do. It was nice because it brought in so many elements of my work, from opera and dance." Not a bad conclusion for the rangy saga of The Cider House Rules.