Over the past two months, New York's Classic Stage Company has presented a remarkable pair of plays in repertory, offering two authentic, yet very different, accounts of life in Nazi Germany. Race is Ferdinand Brucker's astonishing 1933 frontline report, which prophesied the increasing persecution of the Jews (the author left Germany shortly before writing the play). I Will Bear Witness is a one-man show, adapted by Karen Malpede and George Bartenieff from Victor Klemperer's diaries, recounting his daily existence from 1942-45 as a Jew in Dresden married to an Aryan woman. The productions shared scenic and costume designers (Neil Patel and Angela Wendt respectively), but each had its own dedicated lighting designer--Russell Champa for Race and Tony Giovannetti for Witness--which was all to the good, given their wildly differing assignments.
Race is a vast mural of a play, portraying the swift collapse of civility and values in the face of the Nazi rise to power. The central character is Peter Karlanner, a young medical student who lives with Helene Marx, a Jewish woman. Almost instantly, Peter is under pressure to join the Party and denounce Helene. As Peter's individual will gives way to the Nazi mentality, the disasters around him multiply, most notably the horrific beating and public humiliation of his Jewish friend Nathan Siegelmann. By the time that Peter understands the full force of the evil around him, Helene has escaped, and they are destined to be forever separated.
Race began and ended with a tight pinspot on Peter's handsome, yet passive, face. Between those moments, however, lighting designer Russell Champa provided an extremely multifaceted design. Champa says that he and director Barry Edelstein "agreed that we wanted the show to feel and look as different as possible. I interpreted that to mean I should approach each scene with its own individual idea." The scenes in Helene's apartment were relatively dark and intimate, although, Champa notes, they underwent changes: "The first apartment scene was very neat and organized, with a lighting border around [CSC's three-quarter thrust stage]." As the play progressed, the apartment setting became more disorganized, with furniture piling up and the lighting design changing until, finally a scene was performed in "a big blast of light from downstage left." The final scene was performed with one lightbulb visible on stage--Champa used only a little bit of fill to complete the image.
In contrast, a scene set in a beer garden on election night featured virtually the entire cast of 16 sitting at various tables. "That was one of the most difficult scenes," says Champa. "It required about a dozen ellipsoidals to deal with each table and focus point. I was very tight with my budget, so I resisted using specials; but I did need them, so I ate up a bunch of units for that scene." The designer created a cinematic effect as the lights drew one's eye from one part of the stage to another. Champa made use of Arri 2K studio units for the bigger scenes, and within those scenes used Source 4 ellipsoidals as specials to, he explains, "help focus the scenes for the audience." He continues, "It's not often that a director will back you up when you want to use eight studio 2Ks, but I felt they were effective here. "In the beer garden scene, I used the 2Ks at 30-40%, with no-color in six of them. We ran them at the low level in the beer hall scene for warmth. They're also in the second scene, set in the lecture hall." In this scene, a character entered, flipped on a light switch, "and the 2Ks went up to a higher level because this higher level provided a much cooler light."
For the more tightly focused scenes, such as the Siegelmann beating, Champa says he used only the Source 4 ellipsoidals because "we needed more control."
Jan Hartley designed a series of black-and-white projections, which were seen on the rear wall of the theatre; as a result, says Champa, "There was a lot of no-color in my design. We used a lot of GAM 870 (Winter White), along with Lee 201, 202, and some GAM 363 (Sand), which is a bit warmer, for the election night scene." Most of Champa's plot consisted of ETC Source Fours, with L&E mini-strips hung from above to light the skylight placed above center stage. "The mini-strips worked quite effectively, I think," he says, adding that all four mini-strips were "colored the same. They were three circuit strips, the first circuit was no color, the second was Lee 201, and the third was GAM 890 (Dark Sky Blue)." The designer also specified dimmable fluorescents for the back wall, which proved too costly, so he added neon units, "which worked better." Using them, he created a series of chilling moments with sound designer Robert Murphy, in which scenes ended with a burst of cold white light and a sizzling sound--a sinister suggestion of things to come. Champa says that "for the big blast/flash of white light in the transitions and for the taking of Siegelmann 's photograph, we used three High End Systems AF-1000 Dataflash units."
The original plan was for Champa and Giovannetti to use the same light plot, but because of Race's many requirements, says Champa, "about halfway through, we added another rack of dimmers and Tony hung about 20 more units to flesh out what he needed. He used some units from Race, as well." Of course, Giovannetti's task was vastly different from his colleague's. Speaking of his close collaboration with director Karen Malpede and star George Bartenieff, Giovannetti says, "The writing is terrific. George is terrific. I've got to expedite what he's doing."
Because of the theatre's three-quarter configuration, Giovannetti says, "One important thing was I couldn't be architecturally obtrusive with the lighting equipment. I tailored my choices around the idea that a unit might work from the front but could blind the audience members seated on the sides." Thus the designers' work is carefully masked with high hats and half hats. Many of his units are in box-boom positions. "My angles were lower than Russell's," he says. "I had a balcony rail position that he never touched, because his whole approach was sharper, a little more extreme. I needed to get into George's eye sockets." (Like Champa, Giovannetti found the skylight to be a challenge, because of the many positions it eliminated; also, like Champa, he used the mini-strips to light the skylight). For certain key dramatic moments, Bartenieff comes downstage and stands in a tight pool of light. During the piece's climactic sequence, in which Klemperer describes the fire bombing of Dresden, Giovannetti backlights the scenic flat at the rear of the stage; the look, which reveals the flat's backing, creates the suggestion of a bombed out building.
Because Klemperer's diary recounts how he and his wife were frequently forced to move, and because certain sequences vividly describe life on the streets of Dresden, the designer says, "We designed it into approximately five major concept looks." Giovannetti's original concept included a certain amount of color, but "I pulled some of it out," he says. "I changed a lot of the facial stuff for George, who has very translucent skin. If you light him a certain way, his skin can look too pale, with a kind of yellow-green cast. Most of my colors are in the amber and pink range, a lot of Lee 153 [Pale Salmon]." In addition, the designer also used a pair of Strand Bambino 2K fresnels to create a deep blue stage wash. "I've always found them to be very versatile in these tight situations," he says. "You can get a whole stage wash with two units. Also, they have little spill, so they're not obtrusive in that small space, because they don't burn up the Lee HT119 even though they're run almost always at full."
Of course, to design a one-person show is to enter into an intimate collaboration with the cast. "George is very easy to work with," says Giovannetti. "He knows what he's doing, what the lighting is supposed to feel like. If there was a moment when he felt he should be getting a point across, and I had him in the dark, he might say something unobtrusively. I could see, from the way he was holding his head, that he was looking for the light. But he did trust what I was doing. Working with him and Karen was great."
Lighting for both productions was controlled by an ETC Expression 2X console. Lighting for both productions was supplied by Fourth Phase. On Race, Brendan Gray was assistant lighting designer. Technical director for both productions was Peter Barbieri, and Nicholas Hohn was master electrician. Electrics crew included Mona Arriola, Juan F. Cejas, Andrew B. Dickey, Aaron Gallemare, Tobias Juhl, John Salzman, and Marc Schmittroth. Nicholas Bixby is the lightboard operator. Race ran through late February, while I Will Bear Witness will be at CSC through April 1.
Photo credit: ©Dixie Sheridan.