When LD Betsy Adams signed on for Tectonic Theater Project, Inc.'s production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, written and directed by Moises Kaufman, little did she know that the show would be extended twice (at press time, through May 4) and receive a rave review in The New York Times. She agreed to design the lighting because of the interesting script (She laughs, "It has to be really the right project to spill that much blood.") and because she wanted to work with set designer Sarah Lambert again after several years. (They had done a Barnard College production of Our Country's Good.) The play, chronicling how Irish-born wit Wilde came to be sentenced to jail for "gross indecency with male persons," takes transcripts from the trials as well as quotations from newspapers of the time, books written by persons involved in the case, and works of critics who attempt to analyze what happened and why.
To light the essentially minimal set (long tables for the attorneys and their clients onstage, a long table on the floor for the various narrators who quote from the many sources used, a curtain to delineate playing areas), Adams used a total of 119 units, among them 15 Berkey Beams and 12 500W 6" fresnels, owned by Greenwich House Theatre where Gross Indecency was performed, as well as 52 575W 50 1/4 Source Fours and 28 575W 36 1/4 Source Fours, rented from Production Arts ("always my choice"). Her approach to the lighting underwent subtle mutations as the play progressed, or, given the themes of the play, disintegrated. Says Adams: "The whole idea of the play is that it's a chronicle of Oscar Wilde's fall from being the architect of his own destiny. He begins in something of an exalted position and becomes the observer of the dissolution of his own life. We tried to reflect that with both the set and the lights. The idea for my lighting was that it would evolve with the piece from the contained environment of the first trial to the fragmented and multilayered second trial, on the way to the final descent into what Moises calls the hell of the third trial." And, as she notes, "In that very small space-there's no depth; it's only 18' [5.4m]-it posed some interesting problems."
From the beginning of the project, Adams envisioned using white light, adding color sparingly. She ultimately used GAM 245 Light Red to turn brown curtains red, and R76 Bermuda Blue to turn the black back wall blue-green. "I wanted a strong use of backlight, and I wanted it to be very clear and very etched," explains Adams. She turned to the Source Fours, "given the clarity I wanted and knowing we wouldn't always be reading things at high levels."
One of her favorite cues occurs at the turning point of the play, when Wilde is asked by the opposing lawyer whether he has ever kissed a particular young boy. Wilde, in an incautious moment, replies, "Oh, dear, no, he was a peculiarly plain boy." As Adams notes, "That's when he loses control. He becomes highlighted as the backlight comes up to full. All the specials are lighting him. It's a light cue in which you can literally see the actor sweat for the first time, and I don't think it's something you notice happening. It's the longest cue in the show-on a 40 count."
Adams cites as her other favorite cue the one that first introduces color to the design. When Lord Alfred Douglas talks about his first encounter with Wilde, "It's all white light with just a hint of saturated light [R49 Medium Purple]. But it's on top of the white, so it doesn't appear that way. It just warms it up." (Encouraged by Douglas, Wilde himself began the court process that ultimately led to his imprisonment. He sued Douglas' father, the marquis of Queensberry, for libel after the marquis charged Wilde with sexual abnormalities.)
Adams, who besides her theatrical projects works on industrials (most recently, the Intel MMX launch), just completed work on the Cincinnati Playhouse's production of Private Lives, which runs through May 16.