One year after producing the dark, difficult, occasionally brilliant musical Parade, Lincoln Center Theatre presented New York audiences with Marie Christine, another dark, difficult, occasionally brilliant musical. The former, based on actual events, told the tragic story of a Jewish man falsely accused of murdering a young girl in turn-of-the-century Atlanta; ultimately he was lynched by a racist mob. The latter, based on the Greek tragedy Medea, told the story of a black woman in turn-of-the-century New Orleans whose ill-fated affair with a white man led to tragic consequences in a Chicago slum. Both were works by young composers (Jason Robert Brown for Parade, Michael John LaChiusa for Marie Christine), both received mixed to negative reviews from the critics, both, by sheer coincidence, even featured an ominous tree as a central visual element.
Despite their similarities, Marie Christine had its own set of design challenges. Director Graciela Daniele assembled a familiar set of faces for this production; set designer Christopher Barreca,costume designer Toni-Leslie James, lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and sound designer Scott Stauffer. All had worked with the choreographer-turned-director on the Lincoln Center production of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and all but Barreca had worked with her on Hello Again, another Lincoln Center production.
Barreca's single, black steel and wood set featured bleachers for a chorus/jury downstage left, an extremely high rake upstage, and a huge portal that served as a pass-through space for props and other scenic elements and the gate where Marie meets her final reward. "Everyone thinks we wanted to make the Beaumont into a Greek theatre," the designer says, "but the Beaumont is a Greek theatre. We intentionally amplified the classical nature of the space. The set is not a scenic representation but rather a true space where our presence, as observers, is integral to the action; the style of performance, the structure of the piece, required this. My major source of research was large warehouses and factory structures in Germany during the 30s and 40s. They are cold, foreboding, dehumanizing structures, enormous and out of scale; they make a person feel insignificant."
Still, it's not easy to design a setting in the enormous Beaumont space and keep costs down (the entire budget for all the scenery, automation, and props was $300,000). "Graciela and I worked very closely, and the piece itself had some special physical needs," Barreca explains. "I used one of those requirements--a place for the chorus--to re-orient the theatre, effectively creating a new oblique centerline, which made the space dynamic from all angles. I forced this compositionally by designing a massive wall perpendicular to this new orientation. By extending the audience structure into the chorus space, I created a smaller theatre within the theatre."
The presence of the steep, massive upstage rake was part of a specific image that the director saw as representing "the dark unknown of Marie's past," says Barreca. The rake, which rose to almost 8' in the back, provided a place for stagehands to hide certain visual elements--the tree, chandeliers, streetlights--as well as an important acting area. "The steepness was essential to create the strange, surreal relationship between the objects and the space," he explains. Scenery for Marie Christine was constructed by Scenic Technologies and Showman Fabricators, with show control and scenic motion control provided by Production Resource Group (PRG).
Another challenge for Barreca was dealing with the basic structural form of the musical itself. "One of the most difficult aspects of the piece is that none of the scenes end in a standard musical comedy transition," he explains. "Not only do scenes flow together as they do in memory, but the scenes also often ended softly and in a delicate emotional state. Having the changes in the script happen the way they did allowed me to change the picture in concert with the music.
"But despite all our planning we still had to make a lot of adjustments in the theatre to deal with just how sensitive the transitions were," he adds. "I had imagined having the tree float in from upstage during Dante's entrance, but it upstaged him. So we sneaked it in before his entrance, unseen to the audience, so that it magically appeared with him. This would not have been possible without the rake and if the elements had not been abstractly black. Such a large object moving in on a flat floor would have been impossible."
The aforementioned tree, written into the first act, was a difficult structural problem for the scene shop on this project, Scenic Technologies. "It hung out over the rake by 16'," Barreca says. "I had designed the rake with a cantilever so the front of the rolling units could fit underneath. It was constructed out of aluminum and clad in spray foam that was combed while it was drying. The tree was painted black so it would disappear or be lit by different colors by Jules and Peggy. I had planned to make the leaves out of gray rear-projectionscreen material, but Peggy suggested using black rear-projection, which really made the tree vanish [when there was no light on it] while letting light change it dramatically."
Such a collaborative moment was common on this production. "Jules, Peggy, and I worked very closely," Barreca says. "Most of the images were a combination of light and scenery. We spent a lot of pre-production time working through each image and the possible ways to accomplish them."
"Chris is a great collaborator," says Eisenhauer. "His spatial work is unique, and it always has been from show to show. "There are three-dimensional challenges in how he uses the space, and we try to take advantage of that spatiality and make the lighting accentuate it. With his unique spatial placement, we can also come up with unique lighting positions."
Another collaborative gesture occurred in the opening scene, Marie Christine is introduced in a prison, awaiting her fate after murdering her children. "A lot of work on this piece involved taking an idea we knew would work, and then distorting it in some way," explains Fisher. "For example, we thought we'd illustrate the prison using vertical bars of light. We used 52 low voltage pinspots, the kind of unit that lights flowers on a table in a discotheque. Peggy contributed the idea of slightly twisting these vertical bars, so, instead of shooting straight down, they'd go at all angles. They're not only prison bars, they're something weird. We didn't want them to make the floor bright, so Chris was willing to put a grille all the way around the thrust, 360 degrees, that would absorb the light."
The designers set up a system of lights around the perimeter of the thrust to serve as footlights, uplights, or special effects, depending on the scene. A series of narrow pinspots were also added, all aimed at the center, as well. "That was Peggy's contribution," Fisher notes, "and if you stood dead center, you would be in a row of footlights that only lit your face. There were a couple of wonderful moments near the end, when Marie Christine sings 'I Will Give You My Body,' in which, unlike most conventional endings, we pulled the light down so you only saw her face from those pinspots."
One of the strongest moments stylistically in Marie Christine occurred at the very end, as she walks up the rake to the portal to face her death. "In the original Euripides," Fisher notes, "Medea rides a golden chariot to the sun. Here, she walks up the long ramp to face an increasingly bright wall of light on her face. The stylistic question was, do we want her to walk into a real sun? Would it be a flash, an explosion, would it have a hard edge to it, a soft edge? In the end we chose something stark but very beautiful. Behind the rake we placed a cluster on the floor of about twenty-eight 650W high Kelvin temperature movie lights, placed in rays, and as she walks into the center of it, this gigantic light just gets brighter and brighter. Where she stood was about 15 degrees warmer than the rest of the stage."
The lighting designers' use of color was kept to a minimum on Marie Christine: mostly shades of white, with some warm sepia tones in some of the flashback scenes. "It was very hard to arrive at a color palette that had a newness to it, that wouldn't allow the audience to see colors as symbols they've seen before," says Eisenhauer. "In other words, you use dark red, and everyone goes, yeah, yeah, red. You associate it with the symbolic use of color in other productions. We were nervous about signaling the audience incorrectly, and searching for a way to say, for example, this is not your average depiction of a park. One thing we kept coming back to, almost like a compass, was the use of green--and not ever consciously, either. But there was something in the greener tones--and I'm talking blue and yellow and all the things that have green in them--that had a certain energy to them."
One of the other places Eisenhauer and Fisher added color was in the ball scene that closes Act I. "It was a colorful scene," Fisher notes, "and wetried to steer it to help the costumes, because Toni had designed these wonderfu l grand ball costumes. We tried to use color there to represent the sparkle you'd get off the crystal chandeliers that come onstage and rotate. We also had templates of a very fine breakup pattern that we hoped would make you think of light off a chandelier, and it was in the color palette of the costumes. And at certain cues, those templates all revolved."
For Toni-Leslie James, the key to creating the 82 costumes for Marie Christine was finding the right fabrics, a combination of silk and patterned taffetas. "I always lay out the show first in fabrics, because fabrics are always inspiring to me," she says. "I just sort of sit there, brain dead, until I can see the fabrics and colors we're going to play with laid out before me for each of the characters."
Because she travels back and forth between memory and reality, Marie Christine's costumes needed to be relatively flexible. Her prison outfit was basic black, but the costume she wore in many of the memory scenes, a striped taffeta, is among James' favorites. "I found this striped fabric, and I was so married to it, because I felt it could convey many different moods and, no matter what light was put on it, it would do its own thing. For a minute, I thought, is this too bold a choice? I didn't want her looking like she was wearing a couch, but it was some of the finest silk taffeta I'd ever seen. I found it at B & J Fabrics, swatched it, and then my assistant, Bonnie McCoy, called me in a panic and said, 'There's no more of this fabric!' My original choice was copper and cream, and they found something even better, a copper and burgundy. It was much richer and it could become an evil dress. As soon as I saw it onstage, I felt secure with it."
Delineating the differences between the New Orleans characters in Act I and their Chicago counterparts in Act II was as easy as checking the thermometer. "What we were doing--and I think Jules and Peggy did it with the lights--was convey that New Orleans was this lush place of heat and Chicago was heavier and colder," James explains. "In New Orleans, there are all these fabrications of floral patterns, and a lot of lace. Then in Chicago, they had heavy woolens. It was usually something simple; for instance, when one powerful character and his henchmen confront Marie, we just added coats. I kept saying to Bonnie, 'I need some coats, I need some coats!' She said, 'We can't afford them.' But as soon as the coats came in, we were like, oh, we needed these coats. It's just those little things that help cement a scene and tell us where we are." Costumes for Marie Christine were constructed by Barbara Matera Ltd., Carelli Costumes, Philip Brown Costumes, and Adrienne Apparel. Millinery was by Arnold Levine; wigs by Bob Kelly Wig Creations; men's formalwear by A.T. Harris Formalwear Ltd.; and jewelry was by Reisa Roberts. Masks were by Cheryl Mandus for Angel-Masks.com (men's) and Izquierdo Studios (women's).
Scott Stauffer says his goal in designing sound for the production was "getting everyone to sign on board to have all the dynamics of the show come about acoustically." Composer Michael Jon LaChiusa, musical director David Evans, and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick all wanted the show to sound as acoustic as possible, yet they still wanted some reinforcement. "Because it's not a traditional Broadway pit and a traditional Broadway room with lots of plaster, you can't just sit the musicians down there and lightly mic everything," he explains. "You really do have to reinforce."
For speakers, Stauffer used a mix of Meyer CQ-1 and UPA-2P self-powereds, EAW JF-60s, and Apogee SAT-3s, all run on a Cadac J-Type console with all moving faders. He used primarily Sennheiser wireless mics for the actors and a combination of Neumann, AKG, Sennheiser, Electro-Voice, Shure, and Crown mics for the orchestra. Sound equipment was provided by ProMix. The only thing not reinforced in the show was the percussionist, who was perched at the top of the proscenium on stage right. "He's in the room, and we can hear him, so I didn't have to worry about him. I did give him a monitor system upstairs, something called a Mytek system, which is a piece of studio gear I found about five years ago. It has eight mono buses and two stereo buses, and it's just a little mixing console with knobs, no faders, that you can plug a pair of headphones into, or a little powered loudspeaker. You give it to a musician in a pit, or somewhere else, and they make their own mix. It's quite brilliant."
Additional credits on Marie Christine include: Nancy Thun, assistant to Barreca; Ted Sullivan, assistant to Fisher and Eisenhauer; Veronica Worts, assistant to James; Sean McMullen, Julianna Haubrich, Anna Pasquale, and Brian Ranger, assistant scenic designers; and Robert Kaplowitz, assistant sound designer. Marie Christine gave its final performance at the Vivian Beaumont on January 9. Lincoln Center's surprise hit from the fall, Contact, is moving into the Beaumont space.