It’s a thin year for Broadway plays, but Off Broadway things are hopping, with any number of critically acclaimed plays fighting for attention. None has garnered more buzz than Our Lady of 121st Street, produced by the LAByrinth Theatre Company and now running at the Union Square Theatre. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ script is a wild one--the action begins when the body of a nun disappears from an uptown funeral home, putting her wake on hold. Over the next 24 hours, the mourners kill time--drinking, flirting, confronting each other, and baring their souls, all in wild streams of barbed, overcaffeinated floods of words. With a cast of characters who are all too adept at the fine art of verbal slash-and-burn, nothing is sacred: Closet doors are opened, sins are gleefully confessed, and old wounds are ripped open for the sheer pleasure of probing the pain.
The production, staged by Philip Seymour Hoffman, sets up an unusual problem for LD James Vermeulen. Narelle Sissons’ single setting is a detailed representation of a waiting room in the funeral home. However, the play takes place all around the neighborhood, and it’s up to Vermeulen to suggest all other locations with lighting. Fortunately, Sissons and Vermeulen worked together closely to realize the concept. "We went up to 121st Street," says the LD, "and went all around. We went to Save-Your-Soul places, youth organizations, churches, bars. We took pictures of bad molding, of cheap furniture." Their research led to a number of idiosyncratic details, such as the dropped ceiling that Sissons used to give the setting that depressed, utilitarian, functional look. Of course, the ceiling, along with the set’s high walls, seemingly eliminated most of Vermeulen’s lighting positions.
Our Lady of 121st Street photo: Joan Marcus
However, he says, "There are a ton of slots" to be found all over the set. "If you look at all the architectural details on the walls, behind any detail is a slot for lighting equipment. There are a couple of columns that move for some scenes. Around the ceiling there’s all sorts of stuff. There are birdies hidden in places--between curtains and valances. We put them anywhere we could sneak them in, to transform the space." With this layout of hidden gear, the LD transforms the space from scene to scene, creating a series of notably different looks. For example, a scene set in a confessional features two actors framed in squares of light, an approach that quickly sketches in the look of a confession box without having to drag a piece of scenery onstage. In contrast, Vermeulen created a seedy ambiance for the bar scenes using a collection of units placed low, near the deck. The prevailing color in these scenes is R21, one the LD’s favorites: "It’s a really great sunset color," he says, "but put it in another set and it’s a great dingy bar light." When the action returns to the funeral home, the color palette shifts to blue.
Interestingly, Vermeulen says that, in general, he isn’t a fan of blackouts; however, in this play they were unavoidable, so he strove "to really have them mean something. This play 'cuts to' [from one scene to another] so much, you need to accentuate it. We played with blackouts a lot," working with the music selected by sound designer Eric DeArmon to punch them up by synching them to the sound cues.. "The first act is very hard, with lots of sharp blackouts. But in the second act, it starts to transform itself. There are more straight transitions because, as the characters become more intertwined, so are the scenes."
Vermeulen’s equipment package for the show, supplied by Hayden Production Services, included a mixture of ETC Source Fours with fluorescent units and birdies, all chosen to fit inside the set’s nooks and crannies ("The shop order looked like a Home Depot bill," he laughs). Control is provided by an ETC Obsession console. Having earned some of the season’s best reviews, Our Lady of 121st Street continues its open-ended Off Broadway run. Vermeulen, meanwhile, has a number of other projects on his agenda, including Rain Dance, a new Lanford Wilson play at the Signature Theatre Company; another new play for the Off Broadway company Naked Angels, and Romeo and Juliet for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Dublin Carol photo: Carol Rosegg
In contrast to Vermeulen's multitasking design for Our Lady of 121st Street, there's Tyler Micoleau's design for Conor MacPherson's Dublin Carol, which recently ran at the Atlantic Theatre Company. Despite its December 24 time frame, Dublin Carol is not going to be any theatre’s Christmas attraction. The play is a quiet character study focused on John, a Dublin undertaker. John is a middle-aged alcoholic who has lost mostly everything in life, but who soldiers on nonetheless. The action consists of his encounters with a feckless young assistant as well as his estranged daughter, who is the bearer of bad news. Nothing much happens, but in less than 80 minutes a lifetime of sorrows is revealed--cancer, booze, broken families, shattered relationships. The action takes place in John's dingy basement office (here designed by Walt Spangler) and Micoleau's lighting casts a dull sheen on the stage. The time frame goes from late morning to late afternoon, and the LD's carefully controlled cues caused darkness to fall subtly yet relentlessly. Interestingly, a few weeks later, Micoleau opened another production, None of the Above, staged by the Off Off Broadway company New Georges. In contrast to the dolorous Dublin Carol, None of the Above was a bright, two-character romantic comedy. Jenny Lyn Bader's tale centers on Jamie, an expensively neglected Upper East Side teenager who has been grounded for life, thanks to a number of crimes, including poor SAT scores. Jamie's overbearing father has hired Clark, a starving grad student to tutor his daughter. From there, things get complicated as they tend to do in romantic comedies. Working with Lauren Helpern's large bedroom setting, Micoleau gave the production a warm, bright, comedy-friendly look, sketching in several times of day, and neatly delineating a terrace that was visible through a window. The LD's work on both productions was a model demonstration that even the most conventional of plays require skill from an LD--perhaps even more than a big, flashy musical.