LD Brian MacDevitt designed two Off Broadway plays last fall that, oddly, had one thing in common--one of them was about a headline-making scandal, while the other one caused a headline-making scandal. First came Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally's play about the life of a Christ-like young gay man from Texas, as told by a young, all-male cast. The ensuing controversy included demonstrations by religious groups, threats against Manhattan Theatre Club (the producer), and the production's near-cancellation.
All of which was strange, because Corpus Christi, as directed by Joe Mantello, was intended to be a warm, gentle experience, the life of Christ as retold by a group of young gay men. Loy Arcenas' set seemingly stripped bare the Manhattan Theatre Club stage, leaving only a wooden deck where the actors played each scene. Arcenas' concept was matched by MacDevitt's supple lighting design, which unobtrusively worked to create a variety of looks and emotional tones.
The LD says the entire Corpus Christi experience was simple and organic. "I wanted it to look like a show in rehearsal, so we started with a very thin light plot and a bunch of spares. Fortunately, in a space like that, with such a low ceiling and a great crew, you could have a new idea and, the next time the cast took a break, in 10 minutes have a new lamp, new focus, new color. The design could evolve."
The key was found objects, "things that were already in the theatre." For a scene set around the campfire, one of the actors pulled out a string of clear bulbs, which stood in for the flames. Also, MacDevitt adds, "When I first walked in the theatre, there was a striplight leaning against the wall. I said, don't touch it; plug it in. We used it as a pulsing neon light outside the hotel for the Nativity scene." There were other simple effects: A blacklight set the stage for a disco sequence. Actors used flashlights to simulate car lights.
Everything in MacDevitt's design seemed at the service of the text. "We had a really controlled use of color. I tried to keep everything in the natural range, and incandescent, as well. Even the exterior scenes, I felt, should feel like they were done in man-made light." Interestingly, he says, in spite of the tumult outside the theatre, the creative process was smooth, even joyful: "Normally, in a show with that many scenes, with 30% of them we'd say, this isn't it, we'll move on and find it some other time. Here, we had the time and the patience to say, okay, keep working on it, until we cracked the scene, before moving on to the next."
Providing a sharp visual contrast was The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, Arthur Miller's sardonic comedy about Lyman Felt, a businessman who, in the aftermath of a car accident, is revealed to be a bigamist. John Arnone's set used grid-like scenic pieces and stainless steel furniture, often floating in a dark void. MacDevitt responded with a number of geometric looks, including squares of light on the stage floor and narrow bands on the walls, which he terms "making a smaller ground plan in the big ground plan of every scene." In contrast to this rather dark, metallic approach, MacDevitt painted the rear cyc of the set with lush color treatments that he calls "abstract emotional color references to the scene at hand." The bands of color on the rear, were, he says, inspired by a book about Mark Rothko that Arnone brought to rehearsals.
MacDevitt also made use of five Vari*Lite(R) VL5(TM) wash luminaires and one VL5B(TM) wash luminaire, the latter placed at dead center above the stage, "because you can get a really nice color correction blue in it, and you can't with the others." He adds, "I'm one of those people who are always screaming for an incandescent moving light, because I hate the color of HMI on skin. Because the [VL5s] are incandescent, I can use them all over the stage, to help people pop out of the picture. The VL5s could be used as roving specials, and also as color washes on the curtains and around the stage."
Other, eerier effects included an MR-11 placed in the lead character's bed, to create a haunted-looking uplight, and a nightmarish Act I finale, dominated by no-color sidelight. The distinctive blend of color, sidelight, and precisely focused effects created a noirish atmosphere well-suited to Miller's dark meditation on the nature of the American appetite. The Ride Down Mt. Morgan was directed by David Esbjornson--like Mantello another longtime MacDevitt collaborator, and again, the LD praises the atmosphere of "ease and fun, a serious playground mode, which is the best way to create."
Lighting equipment for Corpus Christi, which consisted heavily of ETC Source Fours, plus a variety of other units, came largely from Manhattan Theatre Club's house stock, with additions from Production Arts. The show was controlled by an ETC Impression 2. Equipment for The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, which again made extensive use of Source Fours, along with Wybron Coloram scrollers, was provided by Four Star Lighting. The show was controlled by the ETC Obsession: "We had the Obsession ML to program it, but then we used the 600 for the show." Other personnel on Corpus include assistant lighting designer Jeffrey Whitsett and on Mount Morgan, assistant lighting designer John Paul Szczepanski. Both productions closed at the end of last November.