He's a playwright. That is to say, he's neurotic, driven, caustic, and hypochondriacal—but he hates doctors. He struggles along, paying court to idiotic patrons who nevertheless can finance his work. The Church and the government are always ready to censor his writing. His personal life is (best-case scenario) complicated or (worst-case scenario) an utter scandal. No, he's nobody you know—at least not personally. He is the title character of Baptiste: The Life of Molière, William Luce's new bio-drama about France's greatest playwright, which ran in June at Connecticut's Hartford Stage.
Luce is the author of numerous solo pieces, including The Belle of Amherst, about Emily Dickinson, and Destiny's Child, about Isak Dinesen. Baptiste, however, is something different for the author, namely a full-fledged play. Molière often narrates the story of his life but, just as often, he is seen interacting with performers who play his lover Madeleine Béjart, Louis XIV, and others. The production looked luscious, thanks to set designer Jim Youmans, costume designer Toni-Leslie James, and the lighting of Peter Maradudin, one of California's top theatre LDs, here taking a rare East Coast gig.
Youmans' setting was a spare approximation of the Palais Royal, the theatre where many of Molière's plays appeared, with a proscenium arch filled with detailed classical details. James' gorgeously detailed costumes thoroughly evoked one of history's great overdressed eras. Maradudin, by his own admission something of a white light fan ("I'm usually more interested in the angle of the light than the color"), used deeply saturated color washes that heightened the production's consciously theatrical nature. As the LD says, "Looking at the set, with its strong color statements [a white and gold proscenium and a cherry wood deck], and looking at what Toni was doing, I thought, it has to be about color."
In fact, audiences entering the theatre—Hartford has a three-sided thrust stage—saw the set covered with a deep red wash, using R42 (Deep Salmon). From there on, color was a key component, says Maradudin: "Because the play shifts locations, we wanted a graphic that told the audience where we were. When I think of color, it's in a graphic way—it's not about mixing colors. That way, each color is imbued with a level of meaning." Thus different colors, used as stage washes and on the cyc at the far rear of the stage, served to set each scene. "For Molière's internal space [in which he addressed the audience] we went to GAM835 [Aztec Blue]," the designer says. For scenes with Louis XIV at his palace, the color of choice was Lee 104 Deep Amber for the Sun King.
There were several other key effects, as well. For certain scenes, Maradudin used subtly spinning patterns on the deck. "It's the oldest trick in the book," he says. "You take some breakup patterns, plus GAM brushstroke patterns, with effects wheels with empty spaces and blocked-outs spaces. As the wheels turn, they create a shimmer effect and, if you layer them, it's even better. It adds a dreamy quality to some of the moments in the show. [Theatre and opera LD] Robert Wierzel is responsible for the effect. I specified them in the plot, knowing that he has done a lot of work at Hartford Stage, and sure enough, they had them."
Lightning effects were created by six High End Systems Technobeams®, which are owned by Hartford Stage, creating a lightning-quick chase. "They also allowed me to do different presentational moments, as specials with hard-edged circles." They were, he adds, right for the top of each "act"—the play is divided into five—in which one actor announces a new act and the title of another play by Moliere. In addition, Maradudin used two followspots by rigging ETC Source Fours, "with 10º barrels, to get some punch out of them" using the City Theatrical followspot handle. With these units, he adds, he could float actor Sam Tsoutsouvas, on an otherwise darkened stage.
The light plot for Baptiste included a mixture of rented equipment, from Westsun, and the theatre's house inventory; included in the mix were ETC Source Fours, some vintage Berkey units, over 100 PAR 64s, plus striplighting units, and the aforementioned Technobeams with control provided by an ETC Obsession console. Also used were a hazer from MDG, two G-150 foggers from Le Maitre, and two Rosco Chiller modules. Other personnel included assistant lighting designer Elizabeth Gains, lighting supervisor Joe Damiano, master electrician Matthew MacKinney, and production electrician/light board operator Emily Smith Courville.
Overall, Maradudin says, "It went together very easily and happily. The people at Hartford are fantastic. I hardly broke a sweat." A good thing too, since he returns there this fall with Baptiste's director, David Warren, and the same design team for a revival of Philip Barry's classic comedy The Philadelphia Story. Baptiste closed June 24.
Photos: T. Charles Erickson.