Now in her sixth season as artistic director of Washington's legendary Arena Stage, Molly Smith has begun to build a reputation as a director of musicals as well as straight plays. Last season her South Pacific was well received; this season she has undertaken a revival of Lerner and Loewe's sprawling musical of King Arthur, Camelot. In announcing the production, Arena said Smith was going for the “darker underpinnings inherent in this immortal story of love, desire, betrayal and justice” with a design intended to evoke the “barbaric and cruel society” that King Arthur tries to civilize.

When asked if she thought the world that finally took shape on Arena's Fichandler Stage was the world she had hoped to create. She replies, “for one of the first times in my life, I can say yes because of a design team that was so sophisticated and gifted.” That team included Kate Edmunds (set), Paul Tazewell (costumes), John Ambrosone (lights), and Timothy M. Thompson (sound) along with choreographer Baayork Lee, fight choreographer Brad Waller, and music director George Fulginiti-Shakar.

Arena's Fichandler is a stage in the “almost square” as opposed to the round. With its 796 seats looking down from steeply raked banks on all sides, it presents particular challenges for designers and directors alike. Smith called it “a sculptural space.” Lighting designer Ambrosone says, “The great thing about it is your story telling is on the floor. You really have to think through that floor and the shape of light beyond what it does to people — think more in terms of architecture.” Edmunds says, “The floor is the one great givens in this space. The floor is the equivalent of your backdrop, but it can't be switched. So you need to think through its use for all the scenes.” Thompson adds, “designers and directors new to the round find limitations they never dreamed existed.” All of the designers agreed, as Ambrosone says, that “it's not harder or easier — it's just a different challenge altogether.”

In her concept for the show Smith wanted to both pull the time frame back and stretch it out, saying that “Arthurian legends and some of the myths touched on in the show stretch from 600 AD or so up to even now.” She says her team was really trying to create three different worlds for the show: “The barbarian world it starts in and turns back into; the glorious world that Arthur creates for a moment; and the world of magic.” Smith even wanted King Arthur's call for knights for his round table to be a worldwide call — at least as wide as the known world of 600 AD.

She and her team consulted with medieval experts (including Jutta Eming of the Free University of Berlin) and found that Arthur's call could have gone out over three continents. As a result, costumer Tazewell had to come up with designs for a Mongolian Knight and his lady and for an African Knight and his lady. Tazewell says he wasn't too place- or time-specific with these designs. For instance, the Mongolian Knight is more a fusion of Tibetan, Mongol, and samurai influences. He also had to deal with more standard court finery for the ladies, fairy garb for the magical Morgan Le Fey and her sprites, and English and even French knights in armor (Lancelot was, of course, from just across the Channel).

Costumes also had to capture the early Celtic feel of Arthur's world before his invention of the Round Table, and reflect the wealth and status of his early court. Guenevere first appears in a white fur cape that seems to have been pieced together from pelts. When she drops the cape she reveals a silk-velvet gown that pools beautifully when she falls to her knees in prayer. Both Tazewell and Smith cited the skill of Arena's costume department. Tazewell specifically cited Arena craftsperson Debra Nash for the way the costumes behaved on stage.

Tazewell was able to create a wide variety of looks for the different worlds - geographical and political — by digging into Arena's stocks from prior productions, many of which he had designed himself. (He was a resident artist at Arena for five years.) For Camelot he drew from costumes originally assembled to his designs for such shows as The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Odyssey and re-worked other costumes from the shelves. “It was about half new and half re-worked designs” he says. All the costumes were created in Arena's shop with the exception of two of King Arthur's doublets and the dress for Morgan Le Fey, which were contracted out to Denise Aitchison. All of the headdresses were made in the shop as well, although they did have the two crowns (Arthur's and King Pellinore's) made by Larry Vrba in New York. The look for Arthur's magical tutor Merlin included a massive wig of waist-long soft and wooly dreadlocks which Tazewell designed. The wig was constructed by freelance wig master Jon Aitchison. Tazewell also devised a black leather and shiny fabric outfit with a reptilian quality for Arthur's nemesis, Mordred, as well as a shiny suit of armor for Arthur's protégé Lancelot Du Lac.

To avoid letting the show become too static toward the end of the lengthy first act, Smith and choreographer Lee decided to bring Lancelot's joust on stage as a dance rather than keeping it an off stage event described in song. Lee devised a staging that had the knight's horses performed by dancers wearing horse heads reminiscent of medieval horse armor. Tazewell came up with a design as a headdress for the costume shop to create, but with all the demands on that shop, the design was rolled over to the properties shop under scenic designer Edmunds. She says she actually started out working on a more full-body horse armor concept, but that working with Lee it became clear that, in Edmunds' words, “this burdening of the dancers wouldn't work.” She sees the final result as an example of the value of cooperation between multiple departments.

That wasn't the only crossover between departments during the evolution of effects. Edmunds points to one of the strongest, darkest, and most barbaric elements of the entire production: wagons carrying grim battle images which encroach on the playing space from the corners in the final scene as Arthur prepares for the resumption of warfare after the collapse of his beloved round table. Edmunds had sketched battle scenes with bodies and body parts and the scenery shop had created the wagons but the property shop had to bedeck the wagons with the horrors of war. Chuck Fox, the head of the property shop, began looking for pre-fabricated body parts, but as it was then approaching Halloween, he found a definite shortage of scary prefabs. But he was able to come up with skeletons, which Edmunds says make the visage even more powerful.

That grim visage of war was as impressive as it was because of Ambrosone's stark lighting. It was one of many different looks required for this complex show to work in the round. He clearly found that environment invigorating, using shimmering effects for scenes involving the magic of Merlin, greens for the forest of Morgan Le Fey and warm whites for the interiors. He points out, “The corners are very strong playing spaces, much stronger for 90 percent of the audience than the opposite side might be or the sides of a show on a proscenium stage.”

Edmunds used the floor, the corners, the aisles of the audience, and even the overhead space for parts of the three “worlds” Smith wanted to create. For the floor, Edmunds used a free-form platform with a swirling circular pattern suggesting symbols combining Celtic patterns with medieval manuscript illustrations such as those found in the Book of Kells. She used traps for magical exits, and carrying the circular motif forward, a round bed that rises out of the floor for Arthur and Guenevere's marriage bed and a three-piece round table that also rose from the floor.

The floor itself had an opening on the South side allowing music director/conductor Fulginiti-Shakar to be visible both to the cast on stage and to the musicians in the pit below the floor. Edmunds also put openings on the other sides of the playing space, creating entrance areas for the sprites that accompany Morgan Le Fey's appearance in the magical woods in the second act. But she pointed out that the presence of the musicians limited the number and location of traps they could use to elevate set structures or provide magical exits for Merlin or Morgan Le Fey.

Edmunds went above the playing space to augment the visual imagery of the piece. She suspended a large crown from the catwalk structure, creating a reinforcement of the Celtic motif in its scrollwork. At the key moment when Arthur's dream of a round table cracks, that crown tilts out of kilter, an effect that is accompanied by a sound which Smith describes as a rumbling earthquake, but which sound designer Thompson says he created out of a lion's roar and cracking wood.

That was one of about 15 sound effects Thompson created for the show. While the number of cues was small, their impact was significant. Perhaps the most intriguing was what Thompson thinks of as “sort of a symphony of shofar sounds” — a multiple track mix of the sound of the Jewish instrument usually made of a ram's horn that accompanies the image of heralds sounding the call for Knights to join Arthur's dream.

Thompson, head of Arena's sound department, says the challenges of this show involved reinforcement rather than composition or effects. With a ten-piece orchestra in a pit that is “acoustically a different room than the one the audience and the actors are in,” he had to mike each instrument “more in the manner of a recording studio.” That, of course, required full body mikes for the actors on stage for all the songs. But Smith prefers natural voices for dialogue scenes. “We try to ease the transition when the orchestra strikes up,” he says.

Sound for the round is different from an end-stage or proscenium house, he points out. “For example, no monitoring — whatever you send to the actors the audience gets. You are also constrained in any effort to provide directional cues.” Arena's system for the Fichandler is a central array of 22 speakers suspended above the playing space with an outer ring to reinforce for the rear seats. “But it is getting one signal — essentially a mono feed to the central cluster with a delay for the outer speakers” says Thompson.

For Camelot, Thompson used in-house equipment with the exception of a 52 channel Crest Vx console rented from Masque Sound in New York. Ambrosone also delved into Arena's own stock of lighting instruments for his design, renting only a pair of Vari*Lite 3000s. They had four follow spot operators in the catwalks using very tight irises and taking advantage of the extreme elevations to create something of what Ambrosone felt was a European opera look to the spotting.

When asked if the overall look of the production matched what he had hoped for when he signed on to the project, Ambrosone replies, “I'm always hoping for the different.” Different this Camelot certainly was.

Brad Hathaway is the editor/reviewer of Potomac Stages (www.PotomacStages.com) covering theatre in Washington DC and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. He can be contacted at Brad@PotomacStages.Com