Greek gods and mere mortals get another chance to settle their age-old battles in Tantalus, a 10 - hour play cycle (performed in 50 - minute segments over two days) based on the events surrounding the Trojan War. Written by John Barton in iambic pentameter verse, and directed by Peter Hall and Edward Hall, this colossal production premiered at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in Colorado, in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, last October. A UK tour of Tantalus begins this month and will continue throughout England until May, when it will be performed in the RSC's London home at the Barbican Center.
Billed as one of the most ambitious theatre projects of all time, Tantalus required an exceptionally long rehearsal period of six months (over 1,125 hours) in Denver with a cast including 23 American and four British actors. The design team was even more international, with sets and costumes by Dionysis Fotopoulos, a designer known for his work in Greek theatre and film; lighting by Japanese lighting designer Sumio Yoshii; and sound by David R. White, a member of the sound design staff at the Denver Center Theatre Company.
Perhaps the most difficult design job was faced by White, as the actors in Tantalus wear masks throughout most of the production, creating a situation that would provide unusual challenges for any sound designer. "In working with the masks, we used microphones not to amplify the voices but to give a resonance to the sound," he says. "The goal was to make it sound hyperreal, or beyond real. The overall feel of the sound is as if we are in the world of the gods, with a texture that makes it the unreal world of the play and the playwright."
One of his most pressing problems was mic placement. "We basically had three options. They could be temple-mounted outside the masks, placed in the nostril of the mask, or at the bridge of the nose under the mask," White explains. In each case, there needed to be enough room to sneak in a small microphone, and the Countryman B6 proved tiny enough to do the job.
In some cases, a small hole was made in the mask as a "third nostril" in which to place the microphone. "The masks had to fit closely and correctly," points out White, who discovered that if the mic was in the nostril position and the mask shifted on an actor's face, the sound quality changed. Small windscreens were also placed in the microphone holes so that "P" and other consonants could be heard clearly and not cause distortion.
"I'm glad we had a long tech period and an opportunity to try every possible option," says White. "We needed surround-sound capability for sound effects and music, so we made custom boxes [made with Stage Accompany ribbon tweeters, Focal Audiom midrange drivers, and JBL woofers] to move the sound around to 20 different locations in the theatre." An Intelix matrix system with manually operated faders was used to switch to various speaker locations, the sound designer adds.
Another challenge for the sound department was the fact that the sound effects and music changed frequently throughout the rehearsal period. "They were still making changes in some plays as they were in tech for the others. It was like doing 10 plays at once," White says. Once all the cues were set, the 10 - play menu kept the sound crew busy during each performance. At every intermission they had a job list, which included changing minidisks, moving certain speakers from one location to another, and keeping the sound gear out of the way of the scenery.
Much of the sound equipment came from the Denver Center's own stock, with the addition of the custom-built speakers, some new QSC amps, and a new Crest VX console. "We owned two [consoles] already," says White, who notes that the new one is accompanying Tantalus on tour. "The Crest VX has modified input faders for a smooth fade over the entire range." The sound mixing location was relocated to one of the lighting catwalks in the theatre, rather than in its usual position in the sound booth (White mixed the Denver performances, with a board op from the RSC handling the tour).
The sound design combines the spoken text with sound effects and live music played by two musicians who play 60 to 70 different instruments. "They each wear a body mic [Sennheiser MKE2 Gold lavaliers] to pick up the sound of the instruments, and there are speakers right next to them," White explains. "The goal of the sound design was to give the directors and the composer exactly what they wanted, and to be able to move the sound around the theatre."
John Pryor, director of sound for the Denver Center, adds, "The house system was reconfigured for Tantalus. We worked very hard to diminish the mask sound and make the actors audible."
The soundscape for Tantalus underscores the set and lighting design, tying the 10 plays together as a cohesive whole. Played on a thrust stage covered with sand (the two musicians are visible upstage right), the production's action pulls the audience immediately into the fray. The prologue opens in contemporary Greece, with a group of young women on the beach in modern dress. They eventually become the chorus as a souvenir-seller-cum-storyteller propels them right into the bloody tragedies of Greek history.
"Each play has a stylized vision," notes Charles R. MacLeod, who served as lighting design assistant to Yoshii for Tantalus. "The modern era has a much warmer look, using HMIs with [Wybron] scrollers on the sand. You also have a sense of direction as to where the light source is coming from. The ancient Greek look is cooler, with more mottled templates and more sculptural looks."
In contrast to the sandy floor, the upstage wall of the set is flanked by stage-right and stage-left panels of black, 28' - high Plexiglas placed in front of Show Black rear-projection screens by Gerriets. "We originally wanted to project on the back wall as well," says MacLeod, "but there was not enough space. There is only a 13' clearance because of a garage header, and we were limited by the height of the loading dock."
Two Pani 2.5k projectors are used (one per panel) to project a series of images (from Grecian ruins to the head of Apollo), provided by Fotopoulos and Yoshii. In addition, a blend of found and custom-designed video images are projected by Barco 6400 LCD projectors. "The images range from masks that get larger on the screens to marching soldiers and waves that Yoshii brought from Japan," notes MacLeod. The projected images and the video add a multilayered richness to the overall look, as the sets rely on rather minimal elements to indicate each scene change.
Spears stuck in the sand, a billowing white tent, piles of rags, gleaming brass armor, and burning fires are among the set pieces and props that create the world of Tantalus. In Play Six, Odysseus, the stage is littered with spears and bodies among the burning embers on piles of rags. "The original concept was to use tissue paper, but it rains in Play Seven, so we had to use fabric," MacLeod explains. In Iphigenia, the third play, a large white tent covers the stage, with four ETC Source Fours used with Gamproducts retrofitted ballasts and heads, and City Theatrical EFX2 effects wheels to project hard-edge clouds onto the fabric, while four High End Systems Studio Spot[R] 575s layer a series of soft, sweeping clouds.
Additional cloud effects are created by custom wavy templates in the Studio Spots with CMY color mixing. These are also used to create water and fire effects, mixing hues from High End Systems Studio Colors[R]. "We use a custom mix of light teal with a full cyan overlay for the water, clear for the clouds, and the fire is heavy on red with orange and amber," says MacLeod, indicating that the moving lights were initially added to increase flexibility and meet the directors' needs.
"There is an effective overlay of templates in many scenes, but only occasionally do you see the fixtures moving," he adds. City Theatrical Auto Yokes[R] with ETC Source Fours were also used as repositionable specials and to keep the color temperature even.
Real water and flames also play a role in Tantalus, with a small pool stage left. A 12" hole in the bottom of the pool is covered with Plexiglas and sealed to protect two ETC Source Fours with Lee 201 filters, which light the water from below. A second water source, a Castilian spring, is a fountain also lit from below with a Source Four PAR in Rosco 370 (Italian Blue). In Play Seven, Cassandra, real rain is lit with PAR cans and MR-16s, with a touch of Rosco 64 (Light Steel Blue).
At the end of this scene, in one of the most beautiful moments of the entire 10 - hour experience, two actors stand entirely nude in front of a fire (created with methane gas flames). At first they are lit with a soft-focus cloud template in High End Systems Studio Colors, while ETC Source Fours in Auto Yokes focus tightly on their masks, which have been removed and placed on a downstage log. The lights fade out, leaving the couple in a dramatic firelit embrace.
Another effective moment in the staging occurs when the back wall of the theatre opens to reveal large wheels that imply a giant Trojan horse (only the wheels are seen). MacLeod explains, "The wall opens into a hallway behind the stage. We built up extra staging in the hall to the deck level." Made of steel framing with Styrofoam planking, the wheels move across the opening from stage right to stage left, with actors rolling them along.
As the wheels cross the stage, they are lit with 16 ETC Source Four PARs, some in clear and some in Rosco 27 (Medium Red), with two High End Systems F-100 fog machines and fans used to create movement in the fog. The lights for this scene are hung in the hallway on a grid that was put in with eight linesets to support either scenery or lights. Also hung on this offstage grid is a Coemar NAT250 automated luminaire used as backlight for Hecuba in the first play.
In Play Eight, Hermione, the sand is brightly lit with Rosco 388 (Gaslight Green) in PAR cans to symbolize new life after many years of war. Once again the back wall comes into play, with a shadow box of corn sitting on a 4' - wide rolling platform that is 7' above stage level. The box is backlit with Source Four PARs in clear, and mini-strips for uplight. A painted sky drop behind the box is lit with Colortran Far Cycs in clear and Lee 201. The light on the corn changes from yellow to deep orange when the character Calchas enters to deliver his prophecy about the future.
"We took complete advantage of the sand in terms of sculpting it with the lighting, and pulling the focus where we wanted it," MacLeod says. "In some scenes, there is a minimal use of light, but it is very effective, with the Studio Spots at 40%, but it doesn't feel too dark to follow the action and hear the language."
In a theatre that usually has a one - week tech period and one week of previews, Tantalus enjoyed a two - month process for the lighting, with three weeks for pre-lighting, then five weeks of tech throughout the previews. "We took a long time lighting each of the moments," says MacLeod. "We teched each part, then previewed it. We tried to keep the process as free-flowing as long as possible."
Jon Buswell was hired by the RSC to re-light the show for the tour, and will work with master electrician Sherri James, also of the RSC. The board operators in Denver were Mark Gabriel Debell for the Strand LD90 (conventionals and scrollers) and Dave Mazzeno for the Wholehog II (automated fixtures). All of the moving lights in the rig, as well as the Wholehog console, will accompany the production on tour, where the lighting will be somewhat reconfigured. "There is not enough time to hang as much equipment on each tour stop," notes MacLeod. "Each venue will have a front-of-house truss pre-hung when Tantalus arrives."
The costume shops at the Denver Center were busy for months, making or pulling together over 200 costumes for Tantalus. "Dionysis wanted to see rehearsals before starting the design process, " explains Andrew V. Yelusich, costume design associate for the production. "He wanted to see the direction the plays were taking, and designed as he went along. It was very spur of the moment and came together in the fittings."
Designed as archetypal images for each character, the costumes were not based on historical accuracy. Hermione, for example, enters in a frothy pink party dress, as if going to a garden party, adding a touch of levity to the proceedings. "Dionysis was not interested in history," says Yelusich. "He had his own ideas of how things should look."
To achieve the unusual pastiche of clothing that make up the costumes, there were racks and racks of clothing that the actors could pull from. Once the designers saw things onstage, final decisions were made. The costumes had to be designed so that they would complement the face masks, which have a neutral quality. "The clothes have to be clear about who each character is," Yelusich notes, pointing out that due to the high volume of mud and blood in the production, the costume shop made duplicate costumes for those that get wet during a performance.
The masks were made of a lightweight yet stiff synthetic material covered with pigskin. The natural color of the soft leather was untouched except for some painted accents. To create the masks, full-head plaster casts were made for the eight principal actors and face casts for the chorus members. The masks were then molded onto the cast plaster.
Many of the items used in the costumes came from sporting-goods stores, including leg guards, much like those a baseball catcher would wear. Two pairs of these were covered in leather and dyed in red and blue, and worn by actor Greg Hicks, who doubles as Agamemnon and Menalaus. "He wore the same costume as both, just in different colors," says Yelusich, who adds that sporting helmets and arm guards, as well as authentic metal armor, are also used in a rather eclectic collection of bits and pieces.
After the long rehearsal period, Tantalus settled into a three - month run in Denver. The running crew was as large as the cast, with a deck crew of 10, five for wardrobe, two for wigs, six for lighting (two on the boards and four followspots), two audio, and one projectionist.
While 10 hours might seem like a long time to sit in a theatre, even over two days, the production had a gentle rhythm, with a short break between each 50 - minute segment, and a longer dinner break where the entire audience shared a Greek meal. In addition, John Barton's storytelling was so compelling that I'd wager to say the audience would have come back for more.