In the immortal, though apocryphal, final words of actor Edmund Kean, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." So is lighting comedy, a genre that can be treacherously difficult for designers. For example, LD Brian MacDevitt recently designed a trio of successful New York productions, all of them billed as comedies, but none of them lighthearted. Each uses humor to probe painful aspects of the human condition yet each varies wildly in style and tone. And, of course, each posed different and daunting design challenges.
First off is Fuddy Meers, which opened at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II, then transferred to the Minetta Lane Theatre for a commercial run. David Lindsay-Abaire's bizarre tale begins with Claire (played by J. Smith-Cameron), a woman with a strange form of amnesia: She awakens each morning a blank slate, having forgotten everything she learned the day before. Claire's affliction is a trial for her devoted husband and son, but the situation explodes when she runs off with a man claiming to be her brother; the family reunion that follows is filled with fistfights, gunplay, and shocking revelations that reveal Claire's amnesia to be a desperate defense mechanism against the reality of her past.
At first, Fuddy Meers plays like a bright cartoon about family dysfunctions, but the tone darkens as Claire learns more and more about her past. "I thought it was another madcap comedy," says MacDevitt about his first pass through the script. "But then I realized it's about a trauma victim--it's very moving and very disturbing. It's my favorite kind of comedy; it allows you to laugh at horrifying situations, but you care very much about this woman."
The trick to designing Fuddy Meers is maintaining a brightly satiric surface while suggesting the darker currents underneath. Santo Loquasto's spare, industrial setting is built for action: A pair of chairs on a moving turntable becomes a car, while a tiny model auto traverses the back wall, to complete the traveling effect. Other settings, including a kitchen and basement, are realized impressionistically. For his part, MacDevitt made some canny color choices to give the setting a bright, yet oddly sinister feeling, what the designer calls a "scary cheerfulnesss."
For example, there's Rosco 15 (Deep Straw), which is used to create what the LD calls "a cartoony sunlight." The play opens with Claire's husband drawing the shades in her bedroom, and, says MacDevitt, "there are eight ACL units with this horrible yellow light pouring in and smacking Claire--it's a horrific wake-up call." The effect is so spot-on that MacDevitt uses it throughout the show. Accentuating the play's creepy-cheerful feeling is the use of little bulbs that the designer calls "carny lights;" at Manhattan Theatre Club, the bulbs were red, white, and amber, and at the Minetta Lane they are blue, red, and yellow. MacDevitt notes that the carny lights made a good fit with Jason Robert Brown's incidental score, which the designer admiringly calls "this sick, twisted carnival music."
Color is a big part of the show's backlight scheme; the set's rear wall consists of silver-painted bricks, which MacDevitt turns yellow (R15), blue (R68 Sky Blue), and purple (R59 Indigo) with the help of MR-16 striplights. In addition, lighting that tiny model car proved to be a technical challenge, requiring "downlights that are shuttered right to the car track." Throughout the piece, MacDevitt's work is oddly delicate, using strong color to underline the play's theatrical, whimsical nature; still, it's not a showy design nor does it draw attention away from the sadness at the play's core.
The equipment list for Fuddy Meers includes approximately 210 ETC Source Fours, seven MR-16 striplights, eight ACL PAR-64s, two PAR-64s, and one Mini-10. The equipment is controlled by an ETC Impression console, with one 96x2.4kW and one 36x2.4kW ETC Sensor digital dimmer rack. Equipment for all three productions covered in this article was supplied by Production Arts.
In contrast to the wild psycho-circus of Fuddy Meers, MacDevitt's next project, The Time of the Cuckoo, produced at Lincoln Center Theatre's Mitzi Newhouse space, is an old-fashioned boulevard comedy--at least at first. Arthur Laurent's 1952 play (later adapted into the David Lean film Summertime and the Richard Rodgers-Stephen Sondheim musical Do I Hear a Waltz?) centers on Leona Samish, a middle-aged executive secretary, who comes to Venice in search of adventure and love. Leona (played by Debra Monk) hides her desperate loneliness behind a mask of sociability--she's everyone's best friend, and nobody's girl. Romance appears in the form of Renato Di Rossi, a Venetian shopkeeper, but Leona's fears and suspicions prevent the affair from ever getting started. The Time of the Cuckoo is both a comedy of manners and morals (American Puritanism vs. the more relaxed European model) and the bittersweet portrait of a woman who must confront the reality of her locked-up heart.
MacDevitt says that from the first production meeting he knew that The Time of the Cuckoo should be a beautiful-looking show, and in this he has been aided immeasurably by James Noone's stunning set design, depicting the garden of the pensione where Leona is staying. Working with Noone, the LD has created a warmly sensual atmosphere that tells you all you need to know about the effect of Venice on Leona. Because the play takes place at several different times of day and night, and because a large tree hangs over the playing area, MacDevitt says, "There are five systems of template light--there's a sunset look from stage right; from stage left there's a cool light with softer templates, creating the look of reflected sky through trees. There's a moonlight look, with a little green tint, from upstage right. From upstage left, there are sunrise templates, which use R09 [Pale Amber Gold]. Overhead are templates, with white light, for the midday scenes."
Also aiding his design is what MacDevitt calls "my new favorite thing"--the City Theatrical AutoYoke moving yoke attachment for conventional ellipsoidals. "There are three of them located dead center and two in side positions," he says, adding that he used them as refocusing specials throughout the production. Water effects--the pensione is located on the edge of a canal--are provided by two City Theatrical units--an EFX Plus2 and a Tubular Ripple Projector. Tiny bulbs are scattered throughout the tree for that romantic nighttime look.
Overall, MacDevitt's lighting stays close to a naturalistic rationale, but there's a touch of theatricality at a key moment when Leona, feeling betrayed by Renato, downs too many martinis and misbehaves at a party. The scene, which begins with a soft, romantic night look, ends with her alone, in tears, on the floor, at center stage. "The lights go down until she's left in the dark with one light on her from one of the theatre's voms," says MacDevitt. "That's the only time where the light is gruesome." In fact, most of the time, the look of The Time of the Cuckoo will have you eagerly contemplating your next trip to Venice.
The equipment list for The Time of the Cuckoo includes approximately 245 ETC Source Fours, six PAR-64s, eight PAR-56s, 12 MR-16s, twelve ETC Source Four PARs, five R40s, ten MR-16 striplights, one Reel EFX DF-50 hazer, plus the aforementioned EFX Plus2, Tubular Ripple Effect, and AutoYokes. Control is provided by an ETC Obsession 600, with two 26x2.4k and one 48x2.4k ETC Sensor dimmer racks.
From sunny Venice to neo-noir California--MacDevitt's next assignment, a Broadway revival of Sam Shepard's True West, is one of the season's biggest hits. Critics flipped for the performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, who alternate in the lead roles of Lee and Austin, estranged brothers whose attempt to co-author a screenplay ends in violence.
The action takes place in the kitchen of the house belonging to Lee and Austin's mother. Mom is on an Alaskan cruise, and Lee, a beery lowlife, decides to barge in on Austin's one-picture deal with a sleazy Hollywood producer. Before long, the men are engaged in role-reversal, with Lee penning a wild action-movie scenario that attracts commercial interest, while Austin degenerates into drunkenness and criminal behavior. The fraternal conflict turns ugly and culminates in a spectacular destruction sequence.
True West is staged in the Circle in the Square Theatre, an arena space that has been converted to a modified three-sided thrust for this production. The stage is a raised deck with no real walls. Still, MacDevitt says, "It was tough. The only way to light it was to drop down the grid," which consists of "three concentric squares that follow the rake of the ceiling. Practically everything is lit from those three pipes. You can just get to center stage with it." Although this arrangement made it difficult to get complete stage coverage, MacDevitt turned it into a plus factor with his frequently shadowy, noirish design for the night scenes. "Matthew [Warchus, the director] said, 'Lee has to be on the edge of light--he's looking for the shadows,'" says the LD, who adds, wryly, "I've almost never had a director ask me to take the light down a bit." (City Theatrical AutoYokes were also useful in this instance, again as refocusable specials.)
In fact, some of True West's scenes are played in daringly low light levels, a decision that adds to the desolate atmosphere generated by Shepard's writing.Even so, the lighting is grounded in naturalism, with a shaft of bright light indicating the placement of the kitchen window, and another slash of light that moves from scene to scene, to show the relative location of the sun; during certain scene changes, the slash rotates, adding a touch of abstraction to the design.
Naturalism is abandoned for the final scene, when Lee and Austin trash their mother's house. It's then that three DHA Light Curtains roll into place for the blistering climax. "There's a rush of blinding yellow light and the fill light is a fluorescent green. The idea is to clean the palate and introduce something new," says the designer. True West is probably Shepard's best play, largely because of its compact structure and fast-moving scenario, and similarly, MacDevitt's design for the revival is lean, mean, and stripped for action.
Equipment for True West includes approximately 130 ETC Source Fours, six City Theatrical AutoYokes, 15 Wybron Coloram scrollers, seven Rosco/DHA indexing Gobo Rotators, 28 MFL PAR-64s, six ETC Source Four PARs, two Arri fresnels, 11 striplights, and five City Theatrical EFX Plus2 effects machines. Control is provided by an ETC Obsession 600 console, with two 96x4kW ETC Sensor digital dimmer racks.
Other key personnel on Fuddy Meers include associate lighting designer Michael O'Connor, and light board operator Willy Corpus. Jason Lyons was assistant lighting designer on The Time of the Cuckoo, with Matthew Piercy serving as second assistant and Joshua Rich as board operator. On True West, John-Paul Szczepanski was assistant designer, Stuart Wagner was production electrician, and Chris Ryan was board opeator.
With all this activity, MacDevitt's season is far from over. As we go to press, he is in previews with his next Broadway production, Arthur Miller's The Ride Down Mount Morgan. The production stars Patrick Stewart as a wealthy businessman, a symbol of the Reagan 80s, who is exposed as a bigamist. Not surprisingly, it's a comic play with serious undertones. Then again, as these productions prove, MacDevitt is one designer who understands the sound of laughter in the dark.