Dance of Death

Written in 1901, Strindberg's Dance of Death is not your usual Broadway fare. "We all felt this was a very difficult piece to mount on Broadway," says Tony Award-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz, who collaborated with fellow Tony-winner Santo Loquasto, the set and costume designer for this season's revival of the play at the Broadhurst Theatre. Playwright Richard Greenberg's new adaptation has given this 100-year-old drama a contemporary air, allowing its British stars, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, to engage in deadly combat, as a married couple trapped for 25 years in a fortress on a remote island off the coast of Sweden.

Katz's lighting worked hand-in-hand with Loquasto's set, whose huge walls (including the actual back wall of the theatre) quite effectively imprison the actors. Like all of Strindberg's plays, the writing is loaded with symbols and spiritual concerns, and the design evolved to reflect this. "The set started out in a more realistic way, then became more abstract," notes Katz. "But the question we asked ourselves was, how abstract do you go visually? Do you ground it, or go with the abstract nature of the text?"


Photo © Joan Marcus

The set has both realistic and abstract sides. Stage left is an improbable interior with hundreds of objects indicating the long period of time the characters have lived in this space, burrowing into it deeper and deeper. A staircase wraps around a curved white brick wall leading to a landing with a telegraph machine. There are cracks in the brick wall, indicating that all is not well in this environment, which veers away from the realistic on stage right, where an open metal doorway leads to a rocky landscape.

Deciding that the play called for warm color temperatures, Katz opted for a rig without automated fixtures. "I wanted to humanize it as much as possible," she says. As a result, there are over 200 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, 50 of which have Wybron Coloram II scrollers. Other fixtures range from two Strand Ianiro 2kWs and four 5kW fresnels (also with Coloram II scrollers) to PAR cans, birdies, and L&E Mini-Strips.

The gel strings in the scrollers illustrate Katz's narrow color palette, including Rosco 69 (brilliant blue), R01 (light bastard amber), R02 (bastard amber), Lee 176 (loving amber), R52 (light lavender), R53 (pale lavender), R54 (special lavender), R357 (royal lavender), R22 (deep amber), R26 (light red), R388 (light green), R70 (Nile blue), R68 (sky blue), L118 (light blue), L119 (dark blue), L120 (deep blue), L181 (Congo blue), L115 (peacock blue), L116 (medium blue green), L102 (light amber), L161 (slate blue), and L201 (full CT blue).

All of the lighting instruments are hung on Morpheus Flip-Box truss, Katz says, which means "You can walk out onto the truss from the fly floor." The designer found that the large size of the set limited access to the lighting positions. "This also allowed us to implement new ideas more easily," she adds.

Like the emotional turmoil in the play, the lighting starts out with a more or less normal look, with a sunset created primarily with L176 in Source Fours from stage right, and fades toward night, with shades of blue taking over.

Yet as the characters give way to ever more vicious confrontations, the angle of the lighting shifts to come in more sharply from one side of the stage. "I also start to bring in a lot of red, even coming in through the cracks in the wall," says Katz. In fact, the red light paired with a lot of smoke conjures up images of hell, like the living hell Strindberg has crafted for these hapless characters.

"We dealt with the issue of hell and nature overtaking them as their lives move away from normal," says Katz, who buried birdies in the stage right rocks to light them, along with crosslight from the Source Fours. The smoke and fog are created using an MDG Atmosphere Max 3000 and Bowen Jet Stream wind machine, with clouds and special effects created with a White Light VSFX90 disc machine, a Strand Cadenza EP 2kW projector, and City Theatrical EFX Plus2 disks in modified Source Fours.

Katz also used L&E Mini-Strips to light the back wall from above and below, with High End Systems Dataflash® strobes adding impact in a storm scene as the weather also plays a role in their lives. "There are not a lot of bells and whistles," points out Katz. "I used very conventional tools to do an abstract piece."

The entire lighting package, which includes an ETC Obsession console and ETC Sensor dimmers (one 48x2.4k 400A rack, three 96x2.4k 400A racks, and one 6x6k Sensor pack) was supplied by Fourth Phase in Bergen, NJ. Jeff Turner, who handled the order, points out that the weight of the equipment is a mere 32,000lb, less by half than the 64,000lb required for a big musical such as The Producers. Michael P. Jones served as assistant lighting designer, with Robert Fehribach and Jeffrey Rossomond as production electricians. (Katz's husband, noted sound designer Dan Moses Schreier, also designed the production's unsettling sound effects).

As fate would have it, the cast for Dance of Death was scheduled to be onstage at the Broadhurst for the first time on September 12, just one day after the terrorist attacks in New York City. "On September 11, one of the stagehands couldn't get home and actually slept in the theatre," notes Katz, "and the cast came in the next day. The will to put on this play was very strong."

When Dance of Death opened on September 18, audiences found a production in keeping with the mood of the city. "The issue of annihilation in the play took on new meaning," says Katz. "It became a metaphor for ourselves."

A Study in Contrasts

For sheer contrast, you can't do better than Hedda Gabler and Sexaholix: A Love Story. The former is the latest production of Ibsen's classic about a frustrated young matron who brings down tragedy on herself and her family. The latter is the latest installment of John Leguizamo's onstage autobiography, in which he chronicles a lifetime's worth of dysfunctional romantic relationships, how he found true love, and the joys of parenthood. Both, however, made a splash on Broadway this fall and both featured very different and very accomplished lighting designs by Kevin Adams.

Hedda Gabler, which reached New York after engagements at the Bay Street Theatre of Sag Harbor, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, won appreciative notices for Jon Robin Baitz's colloquial adaptation and Kate Burton's contemporary spin on the title role. In most respects, this is a thoroughly naturalistic Hedda, which becomes clear the moment the curtain rises on Alexander Dodge's sumptuous box set. It comes complete with high walls and a ceiling, which meant that Adams began his work with a limited number of lighting positions to choose from.

"It's all lit from front of house," Adams says, adding that there's "very little lighting from behind the proscenium." Of course, too much frontlight can result in a flat-looking stage picture. However, having recently worked at the Ambassador Theatre--he lit the new musical A Class Act there last season--Adams knew how to take advantage of the theatre's above-average width. "Because it is so wide, I added four [ETC] Source Fours, with [Wybron] scrollers, to the ends of the balcony rail," which helped add definition to the actors' faces and bodies. "Having just done A Class Act, I was certainly able to learn from my mistakes and use the theatre's quirkiness to my advantage," he says. Also, the LD notes, the stage extends past the proscenium, so he added a zone of sidelight that he calls "a psychological space" in which actors can be seen in a more sculptural light.


Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Dodge also gave Adams a kind of gift in the set design, a large window at stage right that allows for the bold, directional use of natural light effects, created by six Altman 5k fresnels. Adams used these to add a sense of progression to the play and to chart the emotional disintegration of its heroine. Although the action barely covers 24 hours, the play is structured in four acts, and the lighting follows a kind of metaphoric seasonal path. "The first act is a beautiful, airy spring day," says the LD. "Nicky [Martin, the director] wanted the top of the show to be like a drawing room comedy." Sunlight coming through the window is created using R15 (Deep Straw), with R360 (Clearwater), R05 (Rose Tint), and R54 (Special Lavender) to fill out the rest of the look. The combination, he notes, "is very flattering to Kate Burton; it's all star lighting," designed to emphasize her striking looks.

Act II, says Adams, consists of "a long, saturated, summer sunset," with R22 (Deep Amber) coming in through the window. "As the act progresses, it becomes early night and we go from bright and airy to a darker, more shadowy space. That sets up Act III, which is like a little opera. It's the most sparsely lit scene--it's autumnal-looking." This scene climaxes with Hedda burning the only copy of a manuscript by her former lover. "We get down to a single 5k unit lighting her at the fireplace," says the LD. When she opens the door to the fireplace, R18 (Flame) light cuts a path across the ceiling of the set, with R18 also coming through the window to suggest the arrival of dawn. (The light in the fireplace is created by 1kW Mini-10s.)

The final scene is designed to evoke a wintry chill. The scene begins with the curtains covering the window and the room at its darkest. As the scene begins, says Adams, "Kate makes this great entrance in a black velour gown; you can just barely make out her shape. She throws open the curtain and this bright cue pops on. Unlike the other acts, it's a completely cold blue, in Lee 161 [Slate Blue] and R360 and R365 [Tharon Delft Blue], with some R68 [Sky Blue] playing across the walls. It's a completely unrealistic cue, but it signals a shift taking place [in the drama] and it's a beautiful reveal of her in that black gown."

Adams created one other touch that provides a running thread throughout the play. The preset look features a scrim on which the LD says, "I made a light painting. It's a GAM template [GAM 629 Homespun] that I doubled and washed across the scrim and balcony rails. The colors are R68 and R83 [Medium Blue]." The template is a kind of cross-hatch pattern that spreads throughout the production, almost closing in on Hedda. At first, says the designer, "We see a little of it hitting the top of the walls; later the walls are completely covered." It's a clever way of suggesting Hedda's emotional claustrophobia.

Sexaholix: A Love Story

Claustrophobia is the last thing you'd associate with John Leguizamo, whose performance is, literally, all over the place. He makes his entrance through the auditorium of the Royale Theatre, interacting with his adoring fans; once onstage, he's in a constant state of movement, providing high-energy reminiscences of his life and loves. Prior to Broadway, Leguizamo toured extensively with the show; Adams came onboard for the transfer for the Royale. In fact, he is the only credited designer.

"They wanted something really simple," says Adams, who came up with a curtain of 60W clear lightbulbs that hangs towards the back of stage. "There are 41 strands, each with 27 bulbs," he explains. "The hang went very quickly--we strung them to a pipe and called it a day." However, this relatively simple device has many virtues: "Basically, [Leguizamo and director Peter Askin] wanted an in-one playing area. They asked for black masking, but you can't do that for a Broadway show. So I told them I could still get that same configuration of space using the lightbulb wall; it cuts the stage in half and pushes [Leguizamo] downstage. That gives me two layers of background behind him--the lightbulb wall and the existing stage wall. It also opens up side positions--I can wash the lightbulb wall with saturated colors shooting across the stage from low side positions. Putting light onto lighting instruments is a strategy I often use." The bulbs also perform chases, which serve to pump up the audience during the opening, the curtain calls, and other transitional moments.


Photo © Joan Marcus

The other lighting element is a series of three rows of L&E Mini-Strips hung above the lightbulb wall. "They're a sculptural element and they provide backlight for [Leguizamo]," Adams says. "They're 8' strips and they form three 24' lines of light. One row is R27 [Medium Red], one is R83 [Medium Blue] and one splits between no-color and R22 [Deep Amber]." Other color elements include ETC Source Fours gelled in R27 from side house positions and units with Adams' familiar dot templates (R7808) aimed from the balcony rail. Most of these units are focused on the proscenium and the audience. "I only have about 70 units in the show," he says, "but about 35 of them are used to light the audience. I think [Leguizamo] likes having the audience visible. Some standup acts look like they're performing in a big black void."

In addition to the Source Fours and Mini-Strips, the equipment package includes a couple of Mini-10s, two PAR-64 units, and one Lycian 1290 followspot, all controlled by an ETC Express unit. Additional equipment for Hedda includes 22 Wybron scrollers and two City Theatrical AutoYokes; the production is controlled by an ETC Obsession II. Ben Stanton and Christopher Atkins were assistants on Hedda; Stanton was associate designer on Sexaholix. Other personnel on Hedda included production electrician Richard Mortell and electrician Vince Jacobi. Gregory Husinki was electrician on the Leguizamo show. The lightbulb curtain for Sexaholix was built by Atlas Scenery. Lighting equipment for both productions was supplied by Westsun.

Even as both productions were completing their limited engagements, Adams was off to other projects, including a revival of the Off Off Broadway production And God Created Great Whales, and a new jazz music-theatre piece, Brutal Imagination, at the Vineyard Theatre, typical assignments for the proud owner of New York's most eclectic résumé.

Elaine Stritch: At Liberty

"An existential problem in tights," is how Elaine Stritch describes herself, and I wouldn't argue with her if I were you. The lady has seen it all: She understudied Merman in Call Me Madam at the same time that she stopped the show in Pal Joey. She's survived two flop musical vehicles. She's triumphed in plays like Bus Stop and A Delicate Balance and slummed her way through sleazy B pictures like Who Killed Teddy Bear? She's gotten fired from a summer stock package of The Women, then became the toast of New York and London in Stephen Sondheim's Company. She's boozed it up, dried out, nearly died, and outlived the love of her life. At the age of 76, when most of her contemporaries are in wheelchairs, or sitcoms, she is currently stunning New York with her one-woman tell-all, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty.

Most shows of this type allow the star to indulge in a mixture of sentiment and self-adoration, singing a few old songs and trading big-time on the audience's goodwill. Not Stritch; good Catholic that she is, she subjects herself to ruthless self-examination, exposing her flaws, foibles, and fears. Of course, she can dish the dirt with the best of them, and does, telling priceless stories about Judy Garland, Gloria Swanson, and Gig Young, among others. And then there are the songs, ranging from tartly amusing comedy numbers such as Rodgers and Hart's "Zip" and Coward's "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" to "The Ladies Who Lunch" and "I'm Still Here," which Stritch turns into harrowing mini-dramas. Anyway you look at it, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty is a unique showcase for a unique personality.


Photo: Michal Daniel

The production is also a unique assignment for Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. The LDs have worked with director George C. Wolfe many times before, but on the whole Fisher and Eisenhauer tend to favor large-canvas projects such as Angels in America, Ragtime, and Jane Eyre, shows which often come with complex aesthetic and technical challenges built in. Here they've created intimate lighting for an intimate evening, a subtle showcase for one highly idiosyncratic star.

Fisher notes that their early discussions with Wolfe provided the key ideas for their design. Wolfe wanted "something as old-fashioned as possible," yet he also noted the show's confessional qualities as well. In many ways, the designers got their work done sooner rather than later, for a number of reasons. For one thing, the script, "constructed by John Lahr and reconstructed by Elaine Stritch," as the program puts it, was edited throughout the preview process, losing nearly 30 minutes of running time before opening night. Previews were also extremely important because the audience was "the missing rhythmic element," says Fisher; before then it was difficult to gauge the audience response to Stritch's singular timing.

Riccardo Hernandez's setting has a bare backstage look, with a brick rear wall; the only piece of scenery is a chair that Stritch moves around the stage every few minutes. The set gave Fisher and Eisenhauer plenty of room to do their work. At its opposite extremes, the lighting ranges from a stark, no-color, backstage look, when Stritch is ruminating on her drinking or her loneliness, to glamorous side washes of pastel colors when she is performing some of her numbers. However, Eisenhauer cautions, "We didn't set up a repeating structure of lighting for each style of storytelling in the piece. We followed George's instinctual lead on the mood of each scene individually--then it was about the stitching together of transitions." Fisher adds, "George has a feeling about every moment in the show--how it should look and how it should feel." As a result, the lighting moves seamlessly, almost subliminally, providing a flow chart of Stritch's ever-changing, ever-complex emotional life.

Even with a nearly bare stage, Fisher and Eisenhauer worked to define the space with light. A row of striplights placed in the deck at the rear of the stage provided accent lights on the back wall, which were useful in transitional moments. During some of Stritch's musical numbers, the LDs layered colors on the stage floor to provide an alluring "performance" look. "If you take the whole of the space, with one person in it," says Eisenhauer, "you can change the space architecturally by carving out color layers." She adds, "We had a broad range of possible colors; out of 21 colors [on the scrollers], 17 of them looked terrific on [Stritch]."

Interestingly, two of the three followspots used in the production are Reich & Vogel beam projectors, placed in side positions in the house. "They're very soft-edged," says Fisher. "They don't have an iris, but they provide very even light." He adds that the different spots "have a real purpose. The front-center spot [the traditional spot position] clearly says 'show business' while the Reich & Vogel units are more subtle, highlighting the star without making an obvious statement."

Fisher and Eisenhauer are known for their insistence on precise followspot technique, which posed a challenge here, as they were working not with IATSE professionals but with the youthful staff at the Public Theatre. "We coached them," says Eisenhauer. "I got up on the stage, playing Elaine, and worked with the operators. We had a little spot master class." Fisher adds, "[The operators were told] they could stay focused on Elaine, but the light could never hit the back wall." Of course, keeping a spot trained on the ever-moving star is a real challenge; Eisenhauer says the operators had to be rehearsed for moments when Stritch heads far upstage: "They had to rotate elliptically into an orientation that allowed them to lead into her pick-up when she comes back downstage again."

Both designers say that after working on so many blockbusters the Stritch project provided a fun challenge, working within a small budget and without automated units. ("Not right for this project," says Fisher.) "We can do things inexpensively," adds Eisenhauer. Inexpensive, perhaps, but not cheap; in his review of the production, New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley noted that Stritch had "the best lighting that money can buy."

The equipment package for Elaine Stritch: At Liberty includes ETC units, Rosco colors, and Wybron scrollers, in addition to the Reich & Vogel beam projectors. Other lighting personnel included Brad Nelson, assistant to Fisher and Eisenhauer; Andrew Hancock, master electrician; Paul "P2" Dreher II, assistant master electrician; Wendy Range, light board operator; and Adam Crowley, Shaun Filion, and Matthew Gross, followspot operators. Lighting equipment was supplied by Fourth Phase.

As for their star, Eisenhauer adds, "She has a kind of reverence for theatre people doing what they need to do. She kept saying 'I don't want to hinder what you're doing.'" Fisher adds, "During one technical rehearsal, she looked into the wings and saw a few lights in the wings, a shin position. She said, on mic, 'Do we need those lights? I've never had them before.' So we took them out. Later on, she said, 'Where are the lights? I was getting used to them.' She didn't want to impede our creativity."

Fisher adds that Wolfe once jokingly suggested that Stritch end the show by walking out into the theatre's lobby, chair in hand, and heading uptown to Joe Allen's, the Theatre District restaurant. In fact, it looks like Elaine Stritch: At Liberty will be moving uptown to Broadway this spring. It's one of the scandals of Broadway history that Stritch has never won a Tony Award. Perhaps justice will finally be done this June.

Havana Is Waiting

At the age of eight, playwright Eduardo Machado was airlifted out of Cuba. He was part of Operation Peter Pan, in which thousands of children were taken from Fidel Castro's regime and relocated to America. That event and its dislocations--he was separated from his parents for a year and had enormous difficulties adapting to American life--left him with the scars peculiar to all exiles, that is, the inconsolable longing for a dimly remembered time and place. On the other hand, this traumatic experience provided the writer with a rich subject: Machado's many plays have explored the political and cultural divide that separates the United States and Cuba.

In his newest work, Havana is Waiting (which had a brief run this fall at Off Broadway's Cherry Lane Theatre), Federico, a middle-aged Cuban-American writer, returns home for the first time since the airlift, in search of his past. It proves to be a painful journey, complicated by Federico's sexually-charged friendship with Fred, his traveling companion, and by the erupting controversy about the fate of Elian Gonzalez. The play has been well-received by the press, thanks in part to Kirk Bookman's seductive lighting.

The production's design creates a strong sense of place, evoking Cuba in a few bold strokes. Troy Hourie's setting, an arrangement of stucco walls and random architectural elements, is built out into the auditorium; Bookman's lighting uses a lush color palette to create the sense of a distant, exotic, faintly mysterious locale. "Eduardo has been to Cuba and has some of the most incredible photos of the architecture," says the LD, adding, "Even with his inexpensive camera, you can tell that the quality of light is very different there. The sunsets are incredible."

Throughout the play, Federico and Fred document their trip with a video camera, an interesting motif, as Bookman says director Michael John Garces wanted the lighting to act as a kind of camera eye, moving from a full stage wash to tight closeup and back again. The opening scene demonstrates the LD's mastery of this technique: Federico is introduced in the throes of a dream while sleeping in his New York apartment. Actor Bruce MacVittie sits downstage center on a small bed unit and is revealed in sidelight. As the dream progresses, the unit rises and falls, with the sidelight in perfect synch. "There are three sets of sidelight," says the designer, who adds that the production's stage manager, Charles M. Turner III, deftly the calls the cues that facilitate this eerie sequence.

The lighting in this scene has a notably cold feel, which is part of Bookman's plan. "We had to make sure that the quality of light in New York was different from the light in Cuba," he says. For New York, "I used some of the relatively new Lee colors, like L711 [Cold Blue] and L728 [Steel Green]. They're more saturated than the color-corrections, and really cold without being too blue." In contrast, for the Cuban scenes, the LD says, "I used several Rosco colors, like R12 [Straw] and R312 [Canary], layering other colors of R23 [Orange] and R41 [Salmon] on the back wall of the set." A drummer stands behind a scrim on an upper level at the rear of the set; when he performs, he is revealed in a diagonal slash of color from a high side position. "I realized early on that we had to light the whole show so that when he wasn't playing he would disappear behind the scrim," says the designer. "We couldn't always light the brick surround as bright as we wanted, because you could see him through the scrim."

Given the set's juxtaposition of odd architectural elements, not to mention the cramped confines of the Cherry Lane, Bookman faced certain challenges in creating his light plot. "I developed it around the set," he says, adding, "everything had to fit in the diagonals of the scenery. There's no symmetry to the plot--it's all built on the scene designer's angles. All the sidelight consisted of individual specials; we had to shoot through whatever was available." Nevertheless, thanks to carefully composed cueing, the lighting moves with the ease and inevitability of a dream; from tiny moments of isolation to warm floods of light that spill past the proscenium to embrace the extended scenery. In another atmospheric touch, Hourie placed ceiling fans in the house; Bookman added narrow PAR-16s in clear above them and added a second set of 6" fresnel house lights with R01 (Bastard Amber). The tinted light and moving shadows create their own atmosphere, sustaining the illusion of Cuba through the intermission.

As with everything else in New York these days, the production was affected by the events of September 11. The Cherry Lane, an ancient theatre, was scheduled for electrical renovation. "Con Ed was going to set up cleaner, more dedicated power," says Bookman, "and move the tie-in point from downstage right to an offstage room. Then September 11 happened and the renovation stopped. I somehow knew in my heart that it might not happen, so I planned the plot based on the old electrical power. I pushed the system to the max, but we multiplexed and we never had a hitch. The entire show was done on 72 dimmers. The real secret was using five City Theatrical AutoYokes with Chroma-Q color scrollers and 14 Wybron Colorams II color scrollers--that meant we didn't have to hang four colors of backlight and 50 specials. There's not enough space for all those specials, anyway." The rest of the plot consisted of ETC Source Fours, with control provided by an ETC Express 48/96 console. Lighting equipment was supplied by Big Apple Lights. "We would have been dead in the water without those great AutoYokes," the designer says; he also cites production electrician Andrew Baldwin-Merriweather as being "very talented and very sympathetic to the process."

Sympathy is a key word here, for Bookman's lighting is so sensitively attuned to Machado's script that each cue seems to come from some impeccable interior logic. It helps transform a rather episodic play into a journey that is both interior and exterior at the same time.

Contact the authors at elgreaux@primediabusiness.com and dbarbour@primediabusiness.com.