It's not every day that someone writes a new version of the Oedipus myth. Even less likely is the notion that it might run four and a quarter hours (with intermissions) and feature a glittering, accomplished cast led by two Hollywood stars. Yet that is exactly what happened this fall when Off Broadway's Blue Light Theatre Company premiered Dare Clubb's Oedipus, featuring Billy Crudup (Without Limits) as the title character and Oscar-winner Frances McDormand in a dual role. For LD Christopher J. Landy and scenery designer Narelle Sissons, Oedipus presented a unique challenge as well--a production that functioned essentially as a workshop throughout the preview period, with the design evolving with the writing and staging.
In true Athenian fashion, Oedipus is in three acts. In the first, Oedipus receives the prophecy from the oracle at Delphi that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Instead of resisting this prophecy, he attempts to fulfill it, only to discover, to his horror, that the man he has slain and the woman he has seducedare his adoptive parents. In the second act, Oedipus has hit the road in search of his biological parents; along the way, he encounters a hunter and his unhappy wife, then falls in with a band of mercenaries. The final third of the play lands Oedipus in Thebes, where he encounters his real mother and the action builds to its ironic climax.
How to contain this sweeping story on a single stage, especially at the black box Classic Stage Company (where Oedipus was staged)? "My goal," says Sissons, "was to create a flexible space that had a certain amount of texture to it, where we could experience the play. There was nothing literal about it. It's all about creating a world for a new play, that asks our imaginations to do all the work." Sissons adds that Clubb, who is influenced by Samuel Beckett, wanted contrasting looks for each act. "The first world was to be intense and airless, and the second was defined by shapes coming out of darkness. The third act was barren. We wanted to strip it down, so the audience felt it was floating in space with the actors. The exercise was to create three different versions of nothing."
Sissons experienced the evolutionary quality of the project firsthand when the first act setting underwent a major last-minute redesign. Originally, the set was defined by a rear wall, a vaguely Classical stucco facade which, combined with the bright sunlight of Landy's design, created the hot, white look that Clubb wanted. However, "It was so literal it didn't help the play." Then she entered the theatre one day, and "saw the walls folded in strange positions and angles and I realized that was the set. That's how [Clubb] sees the project--a moving experiment that will not end until the show ends."
Indeed, Sissons' first-act design added teasing layers of meaning to the action. Were we seeing a (literally) deconstructed version of Oedipus? Was it a world in ruins? Were we witnessing a rehearsal of the play (an idea lent credence by McDormand's intense, intimate performance)? Landy, following Clubb's writing and direction to create a hot, white world, created subtle, almost subliminal changes in the lighting, isolating the performers at certain points and lengthening shadows on the floor and walls to heighten the feeling of menace.
Working within Clubb's minimalist aesthetic, Landy achieved some striking effects in the second and third acts as well. Sissons put a trough near the rear of the stage, in which Landy placed seven GAMproducts Stik-Ups, which created an eerie, uplit look when the mercenaries emerged from below. He also used a pair of effects to turn the trough into a river. "I used a tubular ripple projector, placed at the center of the trough, which created a water effect on the black scrim [on the rear wall of the set]. The trough and the actors were lit by two City Theatrical EFX Plus2 moving effects projectors with water disks to create spectacular shimmering water. The units are variable-speed, so I could create more motion as Oedipus drank from the river."
Also, Landy placed 3" inkies and two mini-tens along the edge of the deck; these created shadowy looks and also contributed to one sinister moment in which light seemed to flow like blood across the floor. A strategically placed Altman 2000L was used in the third act "to give a single source from the front, to create long shadows extending to the back wall, as well as to simplify and finally expose the space in a single thought." In one of the production's most dramatic scenes, the use of four directional beams from above, aimed down into the trough, highlighted the dramatic appearance of the Sphinx (also played by McDormand); the actress walked slowly through one beam, giving her entrance the look of a magical conjuration.
Working within a relatively tight color palette, Landy nevertheless achieved some strong color effects. The first act featured GAM 350 Dark Amber, with touches of GAM 385 Light Amber to help create the hot sunlight effect. He blended R76 Light Green Blue and R74 Night Blue to create the deeply saturated nighttimelook for the second act--"I wanted it to be a thick, heavy blue," he says, adding, "I never ran it past 60%." Overall, the designer's plot ran to approximately 120 units, most of them ETC Source Fours on the grid, plus Source Four PARs for the back wall, and a High End Systems Dataflash(R) AF-1000 for lightning effects. The show was controlled by an ETC Microvision board. Lighting equipment was supplied by Production Arts.
Even as this issue went to press, the design of Oedipus was still in transition as changes were made in previews. "It's been interesting and challenging; difficult, but positive," Sissons says. Landy adds, "As the show evolved, we had to evolve with it." Proof positive that unusual projects call for unusual methods.