Thomas Lynch's setting for Far East, A.R. Gurney's new play about a young US Navy lieutenant stationed in Tokyo in 1954, floats on the stage of the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre with the cool, colorful animation of a Japanese scroll.
Behind a Kabuki-like timber deck, abstract images of the story's locales--a captain's office, a room in a barracks, an infirmary, a bar in Saigon--glide in and out, shoji-style, as the story unfolds. A pavilion that might be a military watchtower looms at the upstage-left corner. On its upper level, a kimono-clad woman narrates the action and signals for scene changes with wooden clappers.
Two kurogo--Kabuki property men in black--move delicate wooden furniture into new configurations. The setting's Eastern serenity is broken only by two pairs of industrial lights jabbing into the space.
Far East exemplifies many of the hallmarks of Thomas Lynch's design. One is a succession of vivid tableaux as scenery unfurls. Another is Lynch's ability to abbreviate an environment to its essentials. "I'm interested in storytelling," the designer notes, "and I'm interested in kinetic scenery, moving the scenery through an evening in a way that helps tell the story, which is different from just putting a drawing room onstage."
Lynch's ability to activate scenery and story simultaneously, as well as to condense locales--a house, a bar, and the beach, in this case--were also evident in the 1998 revival of Ah, Wilderness! at the Mitzi Newhouse. The play's progression demanded specificity, Lynch felt. "You have to go to all those places," he says, "you can't just skip them.
"The porch is not the beach," he continues. "Really you're on the porch. Really you're in the bar. Then, really, you're inside. And then, really, you're at the beach. It's hard to imagine the play, given the language, being simplified all the way down to a unit set. On the other hand, it seems to me the play is often overburdened with scenic description. You just want to take a machete to it all."
For Ah, Wilderness!, Lynch and director Daniel Sullivan, also the director of Far East, stripped the gingerbread--and the walls--from the play's turn-of-the-century rooms. (Both plays were produced by Lincoln Center Theatre.) Lynch let his interiors breathe against horizontal swathes suggesting forest, ocean, and sky. The setting's visual purity was like sherbet against the sweetness of Eugene O'Neill's sentimental comedy. Even pared to basics, the rooms exposed on the Newhouse's open stage had to change without impeding the dramatic flow. "All this wanted to be like nothing," Lynch says.
"The transformation into the beach, I have to say, was kind of cool. The black band across the bottom at the back was made out of slanted veins covered in Merlin cloth that is 10 times as black as black velour. So actors could come in and out of a seemingly complete blackness. The platform, with its furniture from the porch, could track and swivel, and it just disappeared back into blackness. At the same moment, the boat flipped out of the deck downstage right. As that occurred, there was a trade of drops. The green drop rose out of the way, and the ocean drop with the moon was there."
To divert the audience's attention, Lynch and Sullivan sent the story's young protagonist riding on a bicycle in the front of the black strip, as if going to the beach. Lighting completed the illusion. "At the moment of getting to the beach, a feeling of sand was created on the carpeted floor with some blacklight highlights, and the boat was picked up very subtly with blacklight. And then we were just there. It was in seconds, in this big space, so you felt you were looking at everything, but you didn't know how it was being done."
Lynch's fascination with images and structures in motion may derive from childhood influences as well as professional interests. The designer grew up in Asheville, NC, where the presence of mountains gave him a love of landscape that is reflected in his design. His father was a mechanical engineer, and his mother worked for an electrical instrument company. Lynch enjoyed art as a child, and wanted to be a painter or an architect. He also studied piano and was an accomplished musician by his teens. When he was in high school, two drama teachers at the school enlisted him to design and paint scenery and accompany musicals. Lynch went to Yale, majored in art, and thought he was headed for a career in architecture. He minored in literature and involved himself in undergraduate drama, designing productions in such diverse locations as a dining hall and a squash court.
During summers at home Lynch worked in an architect's office, but when he graduated in 1975, he decided that scenic design, not architecture, would combine all his interests. He enrolled in the Yale School of Drama, where he studied with Ming Cho Lee and worked summers for Santo Loquasto.
Moving to New York after Yale, he assisted Robin Wagner on 42nd Street and Dreamgirls while beginning his own professional career Off Broadway at Circle Rep with James Farrell's In the Recovery Lounge, directed by Marshall W. Mason.
"I was very lucky," Lynch says. "I graduated from Yale School of Drama in 1979, and my first Broadway show was Tintypes, in 1980, which was put together by friends of mine from school." Several Off Broadway assignments followed, and he was back on Broadway in 1984-85 with George C. Scott's production of Design for Living and Arms and the Man, directed by John Malkovich. In 1987, he created the setting for the original production of Driving Miss Daisy. His 1989 design for The Heidi Chronicles was nominated for a Tony Award.
Lynch's regional credits include frequent stints at Arena Stage (where his current production is The Women), the Goodman, Seattle Rep, and the McCarter in Princeton, NJ. He has designed a dozen operas in Seattle, Houston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and St. Louis, and he has worked internationally at the Covent Garden Opera House in London and the Vienna State Opera. Currently, he's designing a Ring Cycle for director Stephen Wadsworth scheduled for 2000 at the Seattle Opera.
Along with Ming Cho Lee and his undergrad painting instructor William Bailey, Lynch cites Robin Wagner as one of his great influences. "With Robin, there's a sense of making theatre an event, of making each moment an event, of making the storytelling as compelling visually as it can be, as surprising as it can be moment to moment," he says. Is there a moment in his own work that he identifies as a "Wagneresque" surprise? "I wish I had some!" Lynch laughs, and then describes his opening for Alan Ayckbourn's The Revenger's Comedies in 1994 at Arena Stage: "The preset of the show showed a miniature bridge across the Thames in London, with fog all over, a very precise miniature bridge about 20' across. At the opening of the show, it sank, sort of unbelievably; you couldn't figure out where it was going. Then a close-up version, with big girders and pylons and railings, appeared right in front of us, and you couldn't quite tell how it was happening. That transfer of scale might be a 'Wagneresque' moment."
Lynch's kinetic scenery is, of course, a natural for musicals. Director Robert Falls, for whom Lynch designed Pal Joey at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, says the designer has a "gift for mechanically moving a play around, an ability to figure out how to slide scenery on and off and up and down. He knows that a musical cannot remain static; it must remain in motion, constantly shifting from image to image." Falls cites a moment typical of Lynch's flair, when the character Vera comes down a staircase into a nightclub. "When she walked stage right, the set just kept moving in from stage left, and she was able to traverse about 100', moving and greeting people at tables and then going backstage to see Joey. The scenery kept moving and moving with this fantastic cinematic flow." Falls also credits Lynch with a perfect eye for environments, "the way a musician might have perfect pitch. He's got an extraordinary ability to fill a room and make it interesting and provocative, yet absolutely correct for the people who live there." Lynch is attuned to the psychological momentum of a play, as well as its plot. He's comfortable designing straightforward, realistic interiors, but he also invests them with emotional implications.
For Falls' 1997 production of The Young Man from Atlanta by Horton Foote, Lynch took a less-than-promising locale, a 1950s ranch house, and focused on the mood of its owner, a middle-aged man in the process of building a new home after the death of his son and the loss of his career. Falls, who directed the production at the Goodman before moving it to the Longacre on Broadway, asked for a realistic environment that expressed optimism. "The character's impulse for creating this house was optimistic, even though the play has sad facets to it," Lynch says. "We both felt that rather than underlining those, a contrast between setting and action would be better. The house has a very warm, inviting atmosphere that makes the audience think, 'Oh, I could house-sit there!'
"But there is also an eeriness to this house, as attractive and fully fleshed-out as it is," Falls continues. "Because they've just moved in, the pictures aren't up on the walls, there are boxes of things still around. So there's an emptiness to it." How do you create an optimistic setting for a play about someone who's just gotten fired and whose son has committed suicide? Lynch used color and texture to project mood. "It's all in sunny, warm tones. There's a big sturdy rock wall with a fireplace that has a comfortable, protected feeling. There are windows all around to let in sunlight from the outside, and we look out to a patio on one side and a vista on another."
Lynch also deploys color and texture to convey nuances of meaning. In Far East, the timber surround was painted white, rather than left natural as for a Kabuki stage. The platform supports were deep Japanese red, while the deck had a center square of midnight blue, a motif Lynch derived from Japanese dance. For the backing of the narrator's pavilion, instead of traditional bamboo slats, Lynch hung metal Venetian blinds in military-issue buff. But he kept them translucent to silhouette a samisen musician behind. "This is the first Gurney play I've worked on," says Lynch, "and it's unlike his normal milieu. What I found very intriguing was the combination of Eastern and Western methods of storytelling. I wanted to get that into the set. The very clean foursquare lumbery structure of the Kabuki theatre seemed to have a very happy coincidence with the clean foursquare lumbery structure of Naval base buildings. In the same way, we get this crossover with the red, white, and blue. I hope it's subtle enough so it doesn't jump out at the audience."
The crossover carries through to the furniture Lynch designed: wooden-frame cubes and tables lacquered midnight blue. "They look a little like Japanese antiques," Lynch says, "although they're so simple they feel a little military as well." Despite the visual economy of Lynch's design, he enjoys decorative complexity achieved through minimalist means. "Lusciousness" is a word he uses.
In the opening of Far East, the young lieutenant arrives in Japan on a plane. As visualized by Lynch, the man is a solitary figure sitting on a cube in the center of a bare stage. Behind him is an ocean drop painted in the style of a Japanese woodblock print. "That pulls away," says the designer, "and we get the Japanese tree-of-life design. That's quite a dazzling piece on a bright gold painted fabric." To contrast the flatness of most of the other scenes, the bar in Saigon is backed with a three-dimensional red silk Austrian curtain. "We did a gold medallion stamp print on it, which gives it a slightly worn-out quality--so it has a painted look to it, even though it's real."
In Ah, Wilderness!, Lynch's luxe patinas were augmented by Peter Kaczarowski's lighting. "The big green drop looks like a very simple thing," Lynch says. "It was not. It was a very, very complicated thing. It could be front-lit, it could be backlit, and it had opaque painting on the back. Peter Kaczarowski, with whom I work a lot, could do many things on that drop and on this whole set that could give a lusciousness which isn't totally apparent in the bare bones of the scenery pieces. Boy, was I counting on Peter."
To get the painterly density that he wanted on the drop, Lynch specified filled scrim for its lush, velvety weave. But it did not take backlighting well. Kaczarowski suggested backing the drop with rear-projection material. "We needed an RP material which would allow a good deal of transmission and color acceptance," Kaczarowski says. "We were using a lot of patterns--trees and leaves and quite a lot of fireworks effects--and all of that had to go onto a material that would maintain the integrity of the image, rather than diffusing it into one blobby, blurry thing. It had to have clarity and yet prevent us from seeing the lights that did it." After experimenting at Lincoln Center with various materials, they decided on Review, manufactured by Gerriets. In addition to the scrim, the floor and costumes became a canvas for Kaczarowski's light. Colors and patterns were layered onto the neutral floor around the set's central platform.
"There were shadows that had colors in them," says Kaczarowski, "and there was a great variance of color within the shadows. We did a daytime into sunset where the folds in the costumes and the shadows on the floor filled in starting with medium reds and yellows and oranges, going into deeper versions. Then it segued into cool colors for the evening. There was this always-changing, layered picture.
"Tom's interested in oddities," he adds, "things that have an effect that you don't generally see on the stage, even if it's only momentary, like the blacklight in Ah, Wilderness!. It wasn't something that could stay onstage for very long, but it was a brief moment of great beauty. It was surprising."
Director Dan Sullivan recalls another moment of Lynchian surprise in Ah, Wilderness!: "When we got into tech and went to the beach scene, the dark space which had always been there below, butted against the black silhouette of the land above. That negative space itself turned into water, which was fascinating. Looking at the model, I hadn't known that was going to happen." Did the designer know it was going to happen? Sullivan laughs. "I asked Tom if he did, and he said of course he did."