Alice in Videoland The Manhattan theatre season is unlikely to see a more bizarre or visually gripping production than Alice in Bed, produced in November at New York Theatre Workshop. Based on the life of Alice James, the neurotic, invalid sister of Henry and William James, Susan Sontag's dream play features the bedridden title character in a series of confrontations with her relatives, historical figures like Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson, and fictional characters such as Kundry (from Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal) and Myrtha (from the ballet Giselle).
As staged by the Dutch director Ivo van Hove, and designed by his regular collaborator Jan Versweyveld, Alice in Bed was an historic fantasia with an unsettlingly modern look. Joan MacIntosh, who played Alice, spent most of the play confined to a bed that resembled a stretcher on tall supports, while surrounded by video images of the other characters (videography by Runa Islam). In addition, MacIntosh rested at the center of a strange cat's cradle of moving objects (books, mirrors, etc.) attached to hoists, which in turn were attached to the stage floor and the grid above.
Having first been staged in the Netherlands (it is a coproduction with the Dutch theatre company Het Zuidelijk Toneel), Alice in Bed arrived at New York Theatre Workshop in a remarkably finished state. According to NYTW production manager Larry K. Ash, "The process was very refined. There was a template for the set that was placed on the stage floor," showing the placement of the battery-powered windshield wiper motors that controlled the up and down movement of the objects surrounding Alice.
Video imagery was projected by nine Pioneer DVD players - three placed on the stage floor and six hung from the grid in moving yokes. (Ash says that two of the yokes were fabricated by the Het Zuidelijk Toneel technicians to perform 360 of movement, while the remaining yokes were adapted from Vari superscript *Lite automated luminaires and hung at various heights.
Video played a role in three major sequences. First, Alice spoke with her father, seen on a video projected behind her on a scrim that dropped from the grid. Next to appear was her brother Henry, projected on a white sheer fabric that dropped down on two sides of the actress. The most surreal and lengthy sequence, however was the "tea party," with Fuller, Dickinson, Kundry, and Myrtha. MacIntosh was surrounded by a circle of sheer polyester fabric. The six yoked DVD players projected various images - some featuring actors, others featuring still photos; all six projectors prowled the stage, leaving the lead actress at the center of a vortex of constantly shifting visual information. Thanks to the movement of the projectors, images were refracted, double-projected, and otherwise distorted, creating the indelible impression of the title character's subconscious running amok.
Interestingly, at other times, the DVD players were focused on the floor and used as light sources. Ash notes that that Versweyveld's unusual lighting choices aided the projection and added to the atmosphere of strangeness. Among other things, the designer used a single 400W gas lamp, designed for outdoor use, at stage center, dimmable fluorescent fixtures at the front of the stage, and 300W quartz footlights. "We made the fixtures for them," he adds. "They're placed in pieces of 1 x 2 steel that's been cut away at the front." The rest of the rig includes seven ETC Source Fours and three High End Studio Spots[R] placed in the grid.
Because the production includes video soundtracks, two miked live performers (a second actor played a burglar who intrudes on Alice's solitude), and various sound effects, Ash says that NYTW rented a Yamaha 02R console for the production, the same console used in the Netherlands. The house's regular speaker rig of EAW JF200s and JF80s sufficed, and the actors used Shure mics.
Controlling the show was a big challenge, says Ash. "The motors for the objects [surrounding MacIntosh] are interfaced with the light board, which controls them. We're using an ETC Expression 3 console, with a SMPTE chip, so it can read timecode. At times, the lights and sound are cued off of timecode from the DVDs. For the most part, however, the show is called. There are probably over 300 cues in the show [for a running time of approximately 80 minutes]. Not all of them are executed, because many of them are linked. Programming the show was a huge challenge. There are 26 motors running the objects and all of them had to be reprogrammed, as did the DVD movements and the sound. The Yamaha O2R and the ETC Expression 3 were the same equipment used in Europe. We had the SMPTE chip installed in our board and rented the Yamaha O2R so we didn't have to reprogram the entire production." Ash adds, "The three technicians that came over to assist us with the installation was extremely valuable to us. I certainly appreciated the help offered by Koen Lindner (sound and video), Bram den Haan (lighting and projectors), and Jurgen Kuif (scenery)."
Not every design decision was of a high-tech nature. MacIntosh's performance was spent lying in a thoroughly uncomfortable-looking bed. However, Ash notes, provisions were made for her comfort. "Joan sat in clay, to make a mold of her body. Then they cast it, made a reverse mold, so the chair conforms exactly to her body. It looks very uncomfortable - and it is, after an hour - but padding was added where she requested it, on the neck, arms, and seat." Nevertheless, one imagines that the actress is looking forward to spending considerably more time out of bed in the near future.
Costumes for Alice in Bed were designed by A. F. Vandevorst. After receiving mixed reviews, the production closed at NYTW in mid-December.