A sculptural framework suggests a large wooden house; a projected image shows a woman taking a shower; blue silk billows to evoke the ocean. These compelling images illustrate the strong visual imagination at work in recent productions across the US, from Moon For The Misbegotten at The McCarter Theatre in Princeton, to Pericles at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and the American premiere of Hitchcock Blonde at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA, in a season ripe with theatricality.

HITCHCOCK IN CALIFORNIA

Written and directed by Terry Johnson, Hitchcock Blonde opened at South Coast Rep in February. It premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2003, then transferred to Lyric Theatre in the West End. The scenic, video, and costume design is by William Dudley, sound by Ian Dickinson, video realization by Ian Galloway for Mesmer, and lighting (for the American production) by Chris Parry. Dudley, who used extensive video in Tom Stoppard's trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, and the musical, The Woman In White, uses projection in every scene of Hitchcock Blonde as well.

“The projections existed from the West End version, so I was able to see some of the content before I designed the lighting, but I didn't know how bright it was,” says Parry, aware that lighting can easily wash out the images. “The floor is matte black, which is a real help, as it keeps bounce from the floor to a minimum and allows you to use a reasonable level of light.” Confronted with a very small space, Parry was concerned that, if the actors got too close to the two diagonal walls used as front projection surfaces, he couldn't pick them out with light, and they might blend into the images.

Parry's lighting rig sits inside the diagonal walls but is kept out of sight. “What you see is a second rig of old film studio lights used primarily as props,” he explains. These include 13 Strand 2kW Fresnels that the theatre owned and six 5kW Mole Richardson Fresnels. “The 5Ks were old fixtures that we gutted and used with a 150W A lamp, just for glow,” Parry explains. “The idea is that you are in a Hitchcock film studio for some of the scenes.” The theatrical lighting instruments, including ETC Source Fours (25 of which have Wybron Coloram scrollers) and three Vari-Lite VL1000 automated luminaries, sit 6" above the studio lights. The scenes inspired by a black and white film look use a color palette that includes Lee 200, 201, and 202.

The action switches from the high-contrast, shadowy look of the film studio, to a villa in Greece, with Hitchcock's films once again setting the tone. “The night scenes at the villa should be deeply moody,” says Terry Johnson in an email to Parry. “Vertigo is a great film to watch for that glowering indigo feel. Turn down the brightness of Vertigo, and up the contrast slightly: that's the palette.” As a result, these scenes are what Parry calls, “very Technicolor and very lush,” with colors such as R358, R83, and R79. Although the projections preclude blasts of bright light, the overall ambience suggests bright sunshine when required.

A magical moment is the shower scene (suggested by the scene in Psycho, of course) in the villa, when a young woman is taking a shower, and the professor, who desires her, is watching. In reality, the nude woman is an image, rear-projected onto a screen of real water that creates the shower. As the professor walks up to the shower, the woman disappears. “The shower is in an upstage corner of the set,” says Parry, who lit the scene with moody dark blues that allows the projected images to shine through. “The key for me is to match my lighting picture to the projections,” he adds. “They have to be of the same feel, texture, and color quality. Otherwise, it looks like two different stories.”

In another scene, a trap in the floor opens to suggest a swimming pool, and the young woman climbs out wet. The trap is lined with white tiles that reflect light as in a real pool, and there is one large Fresnel shining into a frame of Rosco thin film mirror blown by a fan. “The mirror ripples like a water effects,” says Parry. “This is a simple effect for the theatre — no major high-tech gadgets there.”

Dudley, who saw Hitchcock's terrifying film, Psycho, at a tender age, won a British Olivier Award for his scenic design of Hitchcock Blonde. The images are rendered using Cinema 4D software, then manipulated by Ian Galloway of Mesmer, a British animation and video company, to fit the projection screens. Playback is via three 5,200 lumen EIKI projectors. “Two are flown on the truss front-of-house, and one is floor mounted upstage for rear projection,” says Bruce Webster, partner and project manager for Large Screen Displays in Santa Ana, CA, who also provided the Dataton Watchout System used to run the projections. The projection surfaces are the two walls, wooden surfaces painted gray, and a Gerriets Studio rear-projection screen that flies in when needed.

As for the shower scene, “projecting on water is nothing new in Orange County,” says South Coast Rep technical director, Jon Lagerquist (with a wink and nod to Disney). “We spray the water out of a shower head with a drain in the floor. The water collects in a pan below the deck and drains back into the plumbing system.” Lagerquist also notes that the actors are not amplified. “We do not use sound reinforcement in the theatre as a rule,” he notes.

SHAKESPEARE IN CHICAGO

Mary Zimmerman's production of Pericles premiered in 2004 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. and reprised at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago this winter, with sets by Dan Ostling, costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, lighting by T.J. Gerckens, and sound by André Pluess and Ben Sussman. “The concept is very Shakespearean on one level, in terms of the geometry of it,” comments Ostling, who notes that the stage is very open with four entrances. He began by researching nautical architecture, from wooden ships to piers, liking both the warmth of the wood and the precision of the woodworking. “I felt this was perhaps too obvious and in looking at other wooden architecture ran across Shaker design. That felt right in many ways.”

Shaker millwork, with its lack of fluff and adornment, became the basis for the scenery. “The idea is like a Shaker meeting hall with large windows,” says Ostling, who painted the walls a distressed, hazy sky blue, almost as it the entire set was a large cyc. The walls themselves are faux plaster, or wood flats covered with hundreds of pounds of a flexible textured material that wouldn't chip as real plaster might (the set was moved from Washington without the walls, which were rebuilt in Chicago).

The idea of Shaker cabinetry comes into play on an entire wall of drawers, or boxes along the stage left wall, that serve as a delivery system for props, lighting, and even actors. “The set becomes a canvas for the costumes, the props and the actors,” Ostling notes, pointing out that Blumenfeld's costumes encompass a wide color palette that help tell the story and help the audience track the action.

The period for the piece was intentionally left vague, or what the creators refer to as “the beautiful period; a mix of anachronistic and playful, but not any period that ever really existed.” Visually interesting is the use of deep blue silk fabric on stage, with four billowing sections used to create waves in a storm at sea, or pulled tight as little puppet boats bob across the stage, or covering the entire playing area to suggest the vastness of the ocean.

In terms of lighting positions, Ostling says he “pushes the limits,” but LD Gerckens is part of the collaborative process from the beginning in Zimmerman's productions and can indicate where light is needed. “I can then create it into the design,” says Ostling. In fact, the Pericles set is widely open overhead, which gave Gerckens an advantage, considered that the 30'-high walls eliminated most positions for sidelight.

“There was nothing overhead except a few mylar drops,” confirms Gerckens. “So I had a wide area that created a lot of opportunity to canvas the stage with textures and colors.” The wall of drawers also provided hidden positions for low sidelight. “Certain of the cabinets along the wall open to reveal ETC Source Fours,” adds Gerckens. “The opening of the drawers was orchestrated naturally into the action.”

Gerckens was also able to let light pour in through the windows and doors. “You would look at the set and think, no sidelight,” he notes. There are also two corridors of light, downstage between the side walls and the proscenium arch, and upstage between the walls and the back wall of the theatre. “This allows me to graze the actors, while creating a sense of depth and mystery in some of the rather dark scenes,” Gerckens says. He also used low sidelight from these corridors to care things out on the stage.

In other scenes, he uses high, 65-70° sidelight and backlight to create a bright stage with white light to evoke outdoors, yet with no frontlight, the actors are etched against the brightness. “This is the case in the scene where Pericles is reunited with his daughter,” Gerckens explains. “It is intimate scene, but the actors create the intimacy, not the lighting.”

The lighting rig for Pericles includes ETC Source Fours (the console is and ETC Obsession), as well as standard PAR 64s from the house inventory, plus five City Theatrical Auto Yokes for moving specials, 24 Wybron CXI scrolling color mixers, Colortran 2kW Fresnels and Arri 5kW Fresnels. The Fresnels are used outside the windows to create blasts of light. “The windows are so large you can't resist blasting through them,” says Gerckens.

Actually, each of the three windows (two on the stage right wall, and one upstage) has its own mini system of light, due to the configuration of the set. “I use three colors at slightly different angles,” Gerckens explains. The colors are R316, Gallo gold, for a warm amber feel, clear for daylight, and Lee 161, steel blue, for night. There is also a double system of footlights, including one single MR16 birdie focused on Pericles in one scene, as well as other MR16 birdies used to create interesting shadows. A series of L&E Mini Fills are also used as footlights, to illuminate an act curtain that looks like old sailcloth. “These provide a very clean, bright light in a compact fixture,” says Gerckens, who used them with Lee 203, color correction blue.

When the goddess Diana, dressed in silver, appears to Pericles in a vision, she enters through one of the windows with white light pouring through from head-high fixtures and Lee 203 as steeply angled backlight on Pericles, who is wearing white. “There is an incredible glow with a silver edge to the light,” notes Gerckens, who also used the footlights to add sparkle to the mylar drops that herald Diana as she walks across the stage. “It is visually stunning, like a million little stars firing in the sky.”

O'NEILL REVIVED IN PRINCETON

In a case of Eugene interprets Eugene, set designer Eugene Lee designed the set for Eugene O'Neill's classic play, Moon for the Misbegotten for the McCarter Theatre, looking at it in a new way. “I designed this show once before, on Broadway, where we showed just the exterior of the house,” says Lee. “This time around, the director, Gary Griffin, wanted to explore things that O'Neill suggested happened in the living room, so we decided to see the inside of the house as well.”

Described as a play about “the deepest yearnings of the human heart over the course of a single whiskey-soaked moonlight night,” Moon For the Misbegotten is set in a large, sculptural framework of a house that is so big that the seats in McCarter's Berlind Theatre were reconfigured into a 3/4 thrust. “I think it works better that way, as the actors are closer to the audience,” says Lee, (who plans to use the same configuration next season for Pinter's The Birthday Party).

“At first, I designed the house with just platforms and stairs, no walls at all,” says Lee. “But the more I looked at the model, I started adding things.” Even with the suggestion of walls, the house is not naturalistic, but rather a stylized version, a sculptural item. “I like the openness of it,” Lee adds. Built by the McCarter scene shop, the set is constructed of old and recycled wood. “Some was painted and some varnished, and we left it that way,” says Lee, who notes that the set shop even found an old door to match. “They did a great job,” he says, adding that McCarter is one of his favorite theatres in which to work.

Lighting designer Jane Cox divided the stage into small areas for tight focus around the actors in the voluminous space. She notes that there is also “contrast between how the set is lit and the burlap used to evoke the sky. When shadows hit the wrinkles in the fabric, it looks like ploughed earth,” she says. In an interview on the McCarter website, Cox notes, “Eugene had some ideas about the kind of lighting units we might use to light the set (specifically large high-wattage flood-type units) which told me a lot about how he imagined it lit.” These large units are 5kW Fresnels that Lee borrowed from his friends at NBC.

Cox used the Fresnels basically as keylight to indicate various times of day: one overhead for noon, one as diagonal backlight for the moon at night (in Lee 161), and one upstage left for dawn. The remainder of the rig is primarily ETC Source Fours; master electrician Paul Kilsdonk programmed the show on an ETC Obsession console.

Cox looked at the sculptural set of the house and saw possible angles of light which she thought would create shadows of particular kinds or reveal the house as more or less threatening or mysterious. “The play is tonally very stark and harsh in many ways,” she says, “so it is very important that nighttime not feel romantic. The quality of a night is more about where the darkness is, and how threatening or not the shadows are, than about the color. So, hopefully night will feel very ‘real’ in this production.” The shift to dawn is also harsh, rather than romantic: “We talked about the coldness of the reality that they are left with as the sun comes back up,” Cox notes.

SOUNDS ABOUND

The team of André Pleuss and Ben Sussman designed the sound for both Pericles and Moon for the Misbegotten. “We work together 90% of the time,” says Pleuss, “yet not always on the same show. Sometimes, we tag team.” For Moon For The Misbegotten, set in the skeletal framework of a house with naturalistic elements, the sound is both lyrical and earthy. “The set designer, Eugene Lee, gave it a timeless quality,” says Pleuss. “It is also a metaphor for the play.”

As a result, the designers avoided stylized sound, and let the actors, (who are not amplified) and O'Neill's language, tell the story. “The sound helps identify the time of day,” notes Pleuss, who used “a controlled musical vocabulary, rooted in Irish heritage and fiddle music.” He recorded a single violin player in Chicago, using multiple tracks. He even found the original sheet music to a song referenced by O'Neill in the script and used the music as a thematic building block.

Pleuss has a home studio and uses DigiDesign's Pro Tools for editing as well as audio software such as Digital Performer and Sonar. In the McCarter's Berlind Theatre, the playback system is based on SFX software from Stage Research, which Pluess likes for its flexibility and the unlimited digital control of fades, cues, and scene groups — things that used to take hours of interface with a board operator (the board at the McCarter is an older model by Midas) and CD racks. “There are no more yellow notepads,” he says. “You can do a lot of quick edits directly on your laptop.”

On the other hand, some amplified sound is used for Pericles in the Goodman's Albert Theatre. “The microphones are used more for stylistic effects than reinforcement,” says Pleuss. “There are also microphones along the perimeter of the stage, hidden from the audience.” These help fill in under the balcony where sound can be challenging. Two Level Control Systems LCS LX300 frames (total 16 inputs, 16 outputs) provide digital playback and control. Primary loudspeakers are Meyer Sound UPA1P cabinets, with Meyer USW1P subwoofers.

In Pericles, the music provides a unifying scope to the journey of the title character, and is string-based, with a glockenspiel and piano, as well. Pluess recorded top musicians in Washington, D.C. for the premiere of the production. “Mary [Zimmerman] knew she didn't want culturally specific music as we move from place to place,” says Pleuss. “We decided to let the costumes do that, yet the sound helps support the sense of time as the story progresses, underscoring the narration.”