It was a good summer for magical Shakespeare productions. First, there was the Lincoln Center Theatre rendition of Twelfth Night (see "Islands of light," page 58), notable for its bold use of water. In August, the New York Shakespeare Festival's Central Park production of Cymbeline, directed by Andrei Serban, turned the Delacorte Theatre stage into another enchanted island, where this sometimes confounding drama of betrayal and reconciliation acquired the quality of a healing myth.
Audience members entering the Delacorte could be forgiven for thinking that there was no set at all, so beautifully did Mark Wendland's rolling hills blend in with the surrounding Central Park greenery. Wendland's set consisted of a grassy mound, with four trees and a circle of sand in the center; surrounding it all was a river. Behind it was a splendid view of the lake adjacent to the theatre. Michael Chybowski's subtle lighting design gave the set a shimmering outline that heightened the play's fantastical nature.
The Delacorte is a big "amphitheatre-like" space, Wendland says, adding, "Andrei and I kept looking at how to make the acting space seem intimate. I thought there must be a way to make it seem like the park keeps rolling into the set. The earliest designs had a little 16'-square platform down center; eventually we got rid of that, but it metamorphosed into the sand circle--95% of the play takes place in that space. The hills, the trees, the water--that was all a way to bring the surrounding environment into the space."
For the early scenes, most of which take place within Cymbeline's palace, Wendland used white screens carried on by the actors and arranged in various configurations. When the action shifts to Rome, the screens were turned around to reveal red surfaces. For the play's crucial scene, in which heroine Imogen's bedroom is violated by villain Iachimo while she sleeps, a screen was placed across the river, creating a bed that floated just above the water.
Wendland's set structure was based on the Delacorte's previous production. "To save money, we left the Skin of Our Teeth platform there, then filled in the space with minimal platforming around it. We used sandbags to round it out, then laid loose sand on top of the bags. The sod went on top of the loose sand." Such a simple-looking set was not a simple task, however, "A huge part of it was not draftable," he adds. "You could do an elevation and section and say this is the shape of the curve. But once you have a tree being lowered onto your set by a giant crane, and that tree comes with a giant root--well, there's a certain fluidity to it. You just let it be what it's gonna be. The staff at the Public was totally cool about that."
Also cool was Chybowski, who notes, "The set was very easily transformable. It was surprising, because the grass took on a lot of different qualities, depending on the angle of light." When he first saw the set design, he recalls, "The only thing I thought was, we need a lot of equipment, because it was such a lot of space to cover." So, "we hung lights just about anywhere we could put anything. We hung them off the speaker towers. We bolted them to the back of the Delacorte stage, and put goalposts up behind the shed." The designer even appropriated the basketball court used by the Delacorte crew, to add a position from which to light the cliff on the other side of the pond. In addition, two large towers were put in at stage left and stage right for stage coverage.
Chybowski also ran a ring of striplights along the river's edge, an effect put to particularly good use for Imogen's bedroom encounter, which had a heightened sense of definition about it. Eight Lumiere units placed in the river added to the shimmering look. The LD says, "I was sitting at the tech table, when Liev [Schreiber, who played Iachimo] actually got into the water. It occurred to me to light the island in the back, just to make it a little more magical. The tone that Andrei was going for was dreamlike--I wanted the scene to have that kind of suspended quality."
The bulk of Chybowski's plot consisted of ETC Source Fours. "Last year [on the Delacorte production of Henry VIII] I used 5-degree units, because I was worried about punch. This year, I used mostly 10-degree units from the tower, because it simply doesn't matter from that distance, and you don't want to be too fussy about control. The goalposts mostly have Source Four PARs, doubled up, with two focused where a normal PAR would go, just for more intensity." Other instruments include four Arri fresnels, two 2k HMI fresnels, two Wybron Coloram scrollers, two Rosco foggers, and one City Theatrical Aquafog 330.
Overall, the design was light on color, with some green added in. "There's not a lot of control possible when you're throwing 120-150' [37-46m]," says the designer, "so it seemed better to put the effort into trying to control the shape. I knew we needed the green, because half the play takes place outdoors. The cool light evolved, as it became clear that [the scenes set in Britain] wanted to be a little bit cold and icy." The show was controlled by an ETC Obsession 600; the lighting equipment was supplied by Bash Lighting Services.
One particular challenge for the normally unflappable LD: Serban loves to work with actors and is less specific about design details, so "we had to figure out how to do it on the fly, because Andrei doesn't really like to tech. A lot of the job was trying to figure out how things actually get lit," a fact made doubly challenging since run-throughs started at 7:30pm, 90 minutes before full darkness fell on the park. "When we did Act II, Andrei didn't stop--he basically ran it the first time he had actors onstage doing it. We had been there until four the previous morning, trying to get ahead. That following evening, apparently he was happy with it, because he just kept going. But it makes your stomach hurt the first time it happens," he laughs. Not to worry--the final result was an effortlessly beautiful production.
Michael Gottlieb was associate lighting designer; Matthew Anderson was assistant scenic designer. Cymbeline ran at the Delacorte through late August.