Most days, the easiest way to reach Frances Aronson is by all-points bulletin. That's because the busy LD can be found here, there, and everywhere, moving between her home base of New York and such diverse points as Dallas, Boston, and San Francisco. Recently, however, you could confine your search to the island of Manhattan, where Aronson has been hard at work on a series of high-profile Off Broadway comedies, each of which posed a unique set of challenges.
In fact, Aronson lit one of the New York season's few genuine hits, the sleeper comedy Fully Committed, which opened at the not-for-profit Vineyard Theatre, then transferred to the Cherry Lane Theatre for an extended commercial run. Becky Mode's script focuses on one day in the life of Sam, an out-of-work actor who toils as a reservationist at a four-star restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side. It's a job fraught with peril--not to mention harassment, blackmail, and humiliation, as various members of high society, show business, Seventh Avenue, and the underworld try to sweet-talk, bribe, and threaten their way into dinner. Woven into the action are subplots tracking Sam's attempts to (a) land a role in the new Lincoln Center Theatre production and (b) make it home to South Bend, IN, for Christmas. Mark Setlock gives a tour-de-force performance, playing not only Sam, but each and every member of the restaurant's staff and clientele.
Another production of Fully Committed might have settled for a bare-bones design, but here James Noone has created a basement office setting, complete with a spiral staircase and a ceiling. The latter element certainly complicated Aronson's life. "The ceiling made it hard," she says, adding, "it's a good look for the show." To compensate for the loss of overhead positions, she relied heavily on front- and sidelight. Even then, there were obstacles: "The spiral staircase blocks one half of the stage from stage left. So I embraced it and shot light through it. The position is useful for lighting Mark." In fact, the LD's heavy use of sidelight gives the play a distinct look, picking Setlock out of the detailed setting as he goes through his frantic paces, while emphasizing the set's confined look.
The actor himself posed certain challenges, as well. "Mark has very particular coloring," Aronson says. "His skin tone is very different from many people; it doesn't respond as much to pink as to orange." To cope with this, she says, "I changed the front wash from pink to orange--as opposed to say, amber or bastard amber. The front wash has Rosco 18 (Flame), which I use with Lee 120 (Deep Blue). I also played with a couple of different pink and lavender combinations from the side and front--there's some R33 (No Color Pink) in the front, for example."
Aronson also created some distinct looks for certain of the show's standout supporting characters. When Sam is talking to the restaurant's sadistic chef on a special red phone placed downstage, "I did some high frontlight--which is as close as I could get to downlight--with L203 (1/4 CT blue) to simulate fluorescent light from the kitchen. Then, from the side, I had R55 (Lilac) and R53 (Pale Lavender) in some of the units." When Sam speaks to Jean-Claude, the restaurant's riotously supercilious maitre d', Aronson lights him with R56 (Gypsy Lavender) from stage right and the front, and double R52 (Light Lavender) from stage left: "Jean-Claude is very much in the purple range," she adds, dryly.
The show takes place at Christmas--there are Christmas lights scattered on the set, as evidence of someone's pathetic attempt at holiday cheer--so when the happy ending is reached, Aronson adds some spinning star patterns in split red and green, courtesy of GAM Products TwinSpins. Otherwise, she says, restraint was her watchword: "The issue was to do just enough, to let Mark be the star of the show." With the LD's subtle assistance, Fully Committed is one of the most pleasurable 90 minutes of theatre in town this year.
Like Fully Committed, Aronson's next New York project, Lobster Alice, is a comedy set in a workplace--but that's where all resemblances end. Kira Obolensky's new romantic comedy, produced at Playwrights' Horizons, takes place in 1946 and is set in the Burbank office of John Finch, an animator for the Walt Disney Company. Finch, who is conventional to the point of neurosis, is catered to by his hyper-efficient secretary, Alice, who is secretly in love with him. Their working arrangement is thoroughly upset by the arrival of none other than Salvador Dali, who has been hired by Disney to work on a short animated film. Under Dali's influence, everyday reality begins to slip away as John and Alice are forced to confront their feelings for each other.
Aronson says the design concept was a simple mirror of the play's action: "We start out looking normal and keep getting crazier." Nevertheless, Neil Patel's realistic office setting posed its challenges. This time, the designer says wryly that she "begged them not to do a full ceiling." Still, a ceiling was suggested, with the LD placing striplights behind fluorescent baffles to create the effect of overhead office lighting. The white office setting created a nice, bright look for comedy, but the view through the set's only window was achieved by projections (by Jan Hartley); if the light was too bright, the projections wouldn't read properly. "There was a lot of balancing done in the design," adds the LD.
As the action moves deep inside the characters' memories and fantasies, Aronson seized on the chance to create a number of colorful and disorienting looks. She used L203 in overhead positions to simulate the look of fluorescent office lights, with R08 (Pale Gold) over Alice's desk to reinforce the look of her desk lamp. Otherwise, colors were placed everywhere for different fantasy scenes: R33 (No Color Pink) and R37 (Pale Rose Pink) in the birdies hidden upstage, R81 (Urban Blue) in side positions with L106 (Primary Red) for romantic scenes; other touches included R36 (Medium Pink) and R76 (Light Green Blue) in box boom positions, and L124 (Dark Green) for one especially bizarre moment when the set began to sprout grass. A hole in the office wall revealed a series of different colors, thanks to an ellipsoidal with a Morpheus ColorFader scroller attached. GAM Products' TwinSpins came into play again, to create whirling wall effects as Dali envisions the film he will make to the hit song "Destino." By the end of Lobster Alice's relatively short running time, Aronson had taken audiences on a fantasy trip without disturbing the delicate comedy-fantasy of Obolensky's script.
Another kind of fantasy was served up in Aronson's next project, a revival of George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man, produced at the Roundabout Theatre. One of Shaw's most popular works, Arms and the Man is a combination of bedroom farce and philosophical tract; at its center is a romantic triangle featuring Raina Petkoff, an overly romantic Bulgarian maiden; Sergius, her pompous, philandering, war-hero fiance; and Bluntschli, the rationalist Swiss mercenary who hides out in her chambers. The three-act play takes place in three locations--Raina's room, the garden of her house, and her family's drawing room. This time, Neil Patel designed a unit set that could be easily adapted to all three locations; however, it consisted of a gold scenic surround, depicting a map of middle Europe, a concept that wiped out most of Aronson's side positions. "The challenge was to deal with times of day and locations on a sculptured, non-realistic set," says the LD.
"I sobbed softly," she continues, laughing, when describing her initial reaction to the set. (Actually, she adds, this is her "Neil Patel season"; besides Arms and Lobster Alice, the two recently did a revival of Hair for Actors' Theatre of Louisville). In fact, she responded to the set's challenges with tremendous cunning. Act I is set in Raina's room at night, lit by candlelight, so Aronson used low light levels, which added to the scene's romantic feeling. "I did get in some low sidelight," she says, adding that she used the Beam Bender, the Jules Fisher-designed accessory sold by City Theatrical, to achieve the effect: "You point the light straight down and a mirror shoots it across the stage. I also had some little birdies in footlight positions, which helped." (Aronson also got to work with City Theatrical's new AutoYoke, the moving yoke for ellipsoidals, as Roundabout has been beta-testing the unit; the LD says she used the AutoYoke for certain scenic specials: "The crew loved them, and they're very reliable.")
In the a vista change between acts, Aronson used sidelight to capture the set in transition, and also made use of Rosco's Colorizer templates, which are covered with bits of colored glass to create a variegated color pattern. "They look like the old Brigham gels," she adds. Act II is set in Raina's garden; Aronson added L174 (Dark Steel Blue) to ETC Source Four PARs for her backlight, then mixed in L120 (Deep Blue) to pull the actors away from the set's golden walls.
Act III moves to the Petkoff drawing room, where the main design event was a diorama light box at the rear, depicting the mountains in the distance with a series of onion-domed buildings, "which has a surprising number of things going on in it," says Aronson. "We started out with two different colors of blue neon at the top--a dark blue and a medium blue" to suggest different sky tones. "For some reason, there wasn't a lot of difference between the two blues, so we added an L&E Micro Fill with L141, which made more of a fairy-tale sky. There's some purple neon behind the mountains, and a couple of birdies, with clear light, to suggest day, with a single birdie in R18 (Flame) to do the sunset" that falls during the scene. "As time passes, the birdie on the house gets brighter, and the purple neon becomes more prominent as the sky fades." As the act closed, Bluntschli opened the door to the set and light from the setting sun poured in through the doorway; it all came from a single ellipsoidal gelled with R21 (Golden Amber).
All three productions were supplied by Production Arts/Bash, part of PRG. (Both Playwrights' Horizons and Roundabout, as not-for-profit companies, do yearly equipment rentals from Production Arts, with additional equipment obtained for each production). All three productions made extensive use of ETC Source Four units. Fully Committed is controlled with an ETC Express 250; the other two shows were run off ETC Obsession 600s. On Fully Committed, Hilary Manners was assistant lighting designer, and Obadiah Savage is the board operator. For Lobster Alice, S. Ryan Schmidt was assistant to the lighting designer, with Doug Filomena as lighting supervisor and Betsy Callaghan the board operator. Douglas Cox was assistant LD on Arms and the Man; the board operator was William K. Roland.
Having completed her New York trio, Aronson has re-upped for one more: Her next project is a new French play, What You Get and What You Expect, at New York Theatre Workshop. As all of these productions show, with Aronson, what she can expect is to be very busy for some time to come.