Thirty-six years after its famously controversial debut, Edward Albee's philosophical puzzle Tiny Alice was back last fall, amusing and mystifying New York theatregoers. Not that Alice is ready to give up her secrets; despite the playwright's longtime insistence that his intentions are perfectly clear, the text is composed of a series of mysteries within mysteries. The difference is that, in 2001, critics now view the piece as a wicked metaphysical game, a black comedy of the mind.
Tiny Alice begins with an ugly encounter between a lawyer and a cardinal in which we learn that Alice, a fabulously wealthy woman, plans to donate billions of dollars to the Roman Catholic Church. Julian, a lay brother, is sent to pick up the bequest, and is quickly ensnared in a relationship with Alice. After that, you're on your own: What is Alice's real motive in seducing Julian? Is Julian, with his troubled mental past and strange religious vision, really sane? What about the strange intimacy between Alice, her lawyer, and her butler? And most of all, what about that elaborate model of Alice's house, which seemingly has a life of its own?
If the answers were not forthcoming in Mark Lamos' production, which ran at the Second Stage Theatre through December, the questions were presented in a thoroughly tantalizing manner. Lamos first directed the play two years ago at Hartford Stage, with the same design team; however, the transition from the first venue, a modified 31/44 - thrust, to a cramped Off Broadway proscenium stage, presented the designers with many challenges.
Working with the limitations of the Second Stage space, scenic designer John Arnone and lighting designer Don Holder managed to suggest the cavernous, vaulted expanse of Alice's residence. "The first battle was how to create a vertical space that would engage an audience physically, and to create a sense of majesty," says Arnone, who did just that with a pair of huge moving Gothic columns, which, in different configurations, suggested different rooms. It was an economical design choice, but also one that reflected the play's themes, Arnone notes, "Entering this castle, Julian confronts a labyrinth, physically and also of ideas. You turn a corner and see the same arch from the room you were just in - but the ground plan is different. You can't be sure if you're seeing a new space or a reflected image."
As Arnone's design evolved, so did Holder's. In Hartford, he says, he relied heavily on a Gothic look, often employing a single large light source. "I took advantage of the large entrances and exits, and the gaps being scenic pieces to make great swaths of light through doorways," he says. At Second Stage, his goal was the same as Arnone's, to imply a vastness of space: "John has created a space that seems to continue beyond the stage picture. I was selective about how each layer of scenic elements was revealed, composing each element so you got a sense of the set receding into darkness." He adds that he worked to open up or close down the space by adding or subtracting layers of sidelight.
With several scenes in different locations spread out over three acts, Arnone's design was built for speed and flexibility. The play's shocking opening scene, an ugly encounter between Alice's lawyer and a Catholic cardinal in the latter's garden, was placed far downstage in front of a wall made of a brushed aluminum frame, backed by a white vinyl RP screen from Gerriets. At the end of the scene, the wall broke apart, sliding panels moved offstage left and right, and the rear center section flew out, revealing the library of Alice's house. In addition to the two columns, the library table and a chaise longue (the latter featured in Alice's bedroom) were also automated (by Hudson Scenic) to allow quick scenic transitions.
Each room in the house had its own distinct look, none more so than Alice's bedroom, which was dominated by a red velvet curtain (from I. Weiss) and a giant (female) nude painting, a copy of a canvas by Carolus-Duran, titled "Danae," which Arnone saw at the recent Guggenheim Museum exhibition titled 1900: Art at the Crossroads. "I wanted a striking image that would embody feminine eroticism but also the idea of sacrifice," he says noting that the subject's slightly cruciform pose subliminally reinforces Alice and Julian's roles as seducer and sacrifice.
Of course, the key scenic element was the model of Alice's house, a huge piece that figures prominently in the action of the play. In Hartford, Arnone says he based the model on Chambord, one of the most picturesque chateaux in the Loire Valley region of France. For New York, he says, he drew inspiration from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, with its rectangular structure and sloped roof. "My associate designer, Jesse Poleshuck [who recently designed the Off Broadway musical The Gorey Details], had the original model delivered from Hartford Stage to us at Cigar Box Studios [run by Gary Rusenberger, in Newburgh, NY], where it was assembled. Jesse digitally photographed it, took it apart in Photoshop, and remastered the image into this new shape."
Holder adds, "We put 16 dimmers in the castle," adding that during the play's climax, the units placed in it go off, one by one. "The sequence was carefully discussed and worked out." Four Electronics Diversified Scrimmer Sticks were placed inside the model, for a total of 16 dimmers. The lights are a combination of items, including Stik-Ups [compact single-source luminaires from Gamproducts], PAR-16s (line voltage MR-16 cans), and 40W A-lamps. "We carefully masked the interior of the house so that light didn't spill from one room to another," says the designer, adding that he "carefully sculpted the exterior with sidelight, so that it always had a dimensional quality."
Both lighting and scenery came into play in the sinister final scene in which Julian, abandoned by Alice and her cohorts, lies dying in the presence of the model, which now appears to be menacingly alive. Arnone stripped away the rest of the scenery, as the house rolled downstage, with actor and building isolated in separate pools of light, each generated by an ETC Source Four attached to a City Theatrical Auto Yoke. (The bulk of Holder's plot was made up of ETC Source Fours and Source Four PARs, controlled by an Obsession 600 console, also from ETC). Then the lighting was gradually lowered to a simple pinspot on Julian's face, revealing in his final moment of agony (or was it ecstasy?). The final image was stark in its simplicity; only Albee's mysteries remained.
Tiny Alice, which was cordially received by the New York press, also featured costumes by Constance Hoffman (including some stunning outfits for Miss Alice) and sound by David Budries. Other key personnel included assistant lighting designer Hilary Manners production electrician John Tees III, electrician Adam Crowley, associate technical director Robert G. Mahon III, properties master Michelle Malavet, and deck crew members Michael Arquilla, Robert J. Gore III, Brandon Marder, and Aaron Treat. Scenery was constructed by Noble Theatrical; Atlantic Studios, Inc; Beyond Imagination; and Hudson Scenic Studios. Props were provided by Anything but Costumes. Lighting was supplied by Fourth Phase. The Edward Albee renaissance continues, with his new piece, The Play About the Baby, opening off Broadway in late January, with a set by John Arnone.