Seen on the University Trail:

If it’s May, it must be graduation time. And it’s time for all of the graduating seniors to show off their portfolios and start looking for work.

Last night we attended the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama's wine and cheese party to meet the Design and Production Technology Management students from the Class of 2002. Many faculty from the school, including School of Drama head Elizabeth Bradley, Barbara and Cletus Anderson, Cindy Limauro, and Anne Mundell were there to introduce the students to the New York design community and CMU alumni.

The students who were showing off their very rich portfolios were: Lauren Alvarez, costume and scene designer; Maggie Baker, costume designer; Jason Bieber, lighting designer; Camille R. Connolly, lighting designer; Thommy Conroy, director, costume, and scene designer; Jim French, lighting designer; Amy Lin, costume designer; Mary C. Schrader, scene and costume designer; Lindsay Christine Stang, costume designer; and Janice Zeller, costume designer. Among the attending designers there to view the work and to network with the newly minted graduates were John Lee Beatty, Danny Franks and his wife Ruth, Imero Fiorentino, Paul Gregory, David Segal, Fred Voelpel, and Annie Wrightson.

I also stopped by the 2002 Pratt Show at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Actually, the show took over the whole Manhattan Center with design works. Fred Horne, VP film, grip & lighting for Ken Longert Lighting (KLL), took me on a nickel tour of the setup. KLL supplied the lighting, electric, trussing, as well as the labor for the weeklong student show. KLL had a crew of over 75 loading in for two days the weekend prior, as well as crews running and maintaining the equipment throughout the show.

The lower level was transformed into a projection theatre with rear screen projection, DVD, VHS and ¾” tape decks for the Computer Graphics and Media Arts section; the main floor and balconies of the Hammerstein were turned into a series of booths highlighting Interior Design, Fashion, Media and Fine Arts, and Architecture; and the Grand Ballroom was converted into a one-day fashion show. It was an impressive display of work.

I also recently traveled up to Syracuse University to tour the design department and get a look at Lightbox, a new design tool developed by scene and lighting designer (and Syracuse University alum) Charles Kirby. I will be writing more about Lightbox in the October issue of Entertainment Design. In a nutshell, Lightbox is a new tool that allows the user to light a scale model and design in virtually any space. The user can see the effects of color, beam spread and angle, intensity, and quality of the light. It is also possible to write light cues and use lighting patterns. It is a tool that transcends lighting, making it possible for all of the design team and the director to really collaborate in a visual way. Now when the director says he wants a green backdrop, the designers can show him a green backdrop and everyone can agree, or better yet, disagree, since it is cheap and easy to make changes. Lightbox has the promise to be a very effective tool in teaching not only lighting, but scene and costume design, and more importantly, collaboration.

While in Syracuse, I got to see part of Lee Blessing’s Chesapeake at Syracuse Stage. The last show of the season at Syracuse Stage was supposed to be a much larger production, but the budgets got tight, so they went with a one-man show with no real scenery and one costume provided by Christianne Myers. So the bulk of the design fell onto lighting designer Chris Dallos’ shoulders. Michael Schweikardt’s set, which comprised a wide-open stage and exposed lighting trees and electrics, with almost every fixture Syracuse Stage owns, used lighting to create the many locales in the play. (Chris did say Michael laid out the boom positions.) It had an interesting look with a few too many audience blinders for my taste, but the lighting served the in-your-face quality of the piece.

The other show that I saw in Syracuse was the Department of Drama’s production of Man of La Mancha. The show featured scenery by design department head Maria Marrero, costumes and lighting by students Julia Rusthoven and Kelly Lane, respectively, and sound by adjunct professor Jonathan Herter. It was an interesting production of a show I am not too fond of to begin with. My one big complaint was the sound: Every vocalist was miked (somewhat unnecessarily, I felt) and the orchestra was behind the scenery so they were miked even louder, into a cacophony that did not serve the show. Even worse, there was an undercurrent of white noise during the quieter scenes that distracted from the show.--Michael S. Eddy

Seen On Broadway: Into the Woods is back, in a highly professional production that left me missing the 1987 original. James Lapine’s book was always shaky—convoluted in the first act, with a hard-to-take shift in tone for the second act—but the strong performances of Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason, among others, originally papered over some of these problems. The new cast is hard-working and sometimes very good, but lacking in distinction overall: John McMartin makes an excellent Narrator but Vanessa Williams doesn’t have enough humor and intensity as the Witch. Douglas W. Schmidt’s settings include a series of storybooks that open up to reveal new settings, plus copious amounts of leaves, and later, bare tree branches. Susan Hilferty’s costumes include a number of witty inventions, especially the now-famous outfit for Milky White, the cow. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting is beautifully subtle, adding depth and dimensions to the forest scenery.

The real design innovations are Dan Moses Schreier’s sound, which combines high-quality amplification with some truly unsettling effects, especially for the Giant’s thunderous second-act appearance, and Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections, for Cinderella’s mother and especially the Giant, seen here as a looming shadow with the voice of Judi Dench. Into the Woods, for all its weaknesses, has a lot going for it—it has some of Stephen Sondheim’s most affecting songs—and for many audiences, this production will be more than satisfying. To my eyes, it’s awfully soon to be reviving this show—especially in a production that doesn’t improve on the original.--David Barbour

Seen Off Broadway: A Few Stout Individuals, at the Signature Theatre, is John Guare’s version of how Ulysses Grant came to write his memoirs. The title is taken from a remark by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “History is nothing more than the biographies of a few stout individuals.” In Guare’s telling, history is contained in the memories of one dying, senile, drug-addled general beset by his bankrupt, dysfunctional family and assorted hangers-on, all of whom have their own agendas. The action is fast and frantic—too frantic, under Michael Greif’s direction, but there are many treasurable remarks. I was taken with Mrs. Grant’s assertion that, but for her husband, Americans would be living in a series of Balkanized states: “The kingdom of Kentucky, the duchy of Dakota.” And how can you not love Samuel Clemens’ dismissal of the Statue of Liberty as “that 200' woman France is dumping on America”? Furthermore, Guare has a number of provocative points to make about the writing of history. As someone astutely remarks, memory is “that most fragile of organs.”

Ultimately, this is a middling Guare effort, which badly needs pruning —a number of running gags don’t pay off, and many lines don’t land as well as they should. But Donald Moffat and Polly Holliday are fine as General and Mrs. Grant, William Sadler is a most convincing Samuel Clemens, and Charles Brown makes the most of a harrowing monologue describing the carnage of Cold Harbor, Grant’s most infamous military failure. The production is also superbly designed. Allen Moyer’s parlor setting, in the Grants' New York townhouse, is a beautiful ruin, visibly stripped of the paintings the Grants have sold to stave off their creditors. Gabriel Berry has provided the ladies with handsomely detailed period gowns; I particularly admired the economical way she gave Mrs. Grant and her daughter changes of clothing by overlaying new bodices on the same skirt. James Vermeulen’s lighting is smartly conceived to take the audience from surface reality to the scenes set inside Grant’s mind, where he is lost in conversation with the Emperor and Empress of Japan. And David Van Tieghem’s sound design provides numerous crucial effects, including the massed crowds outside the Grant’s townhouse, not to mention some lovely Japanese music. A Few Stout Individuals is far from a perfect play, but we should be so lucky to get five or six more this season that are as interesting as this.--DB

Seen at the Movies: I've never been a huge Hugh Grant fan, but About a Boy may convert me; in any case, his spiky new haircut is much preferable to the old floppy English boarding school coif. His new willingness to explore the underside of those British-edition aw-shucks man-boy mannerisms is welcome, too. This is something like the 5,000,066th story of a stunted adult male who most learn about life and commitment to others from a child, but the scenario has rarely been enacted as dryly and ruefully as here. Credit Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity and the novel this is based on. And, confoundingly, credit director-screenwriters Paul & Chris Weitz, whose most famous previous venture is American Pie. Who knew they were sophisticated Londoners at heart?

The film is handsomely lit and shot by Remi Adefarasin, who provides a textbook example of how to inject dark tones into a comic visual style. Jim Clay's production design is expert in delineating character, whether it's the gadget-filled pad of Grant's materialist or the more down-to-earth look of the abode 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) shares with his depressive retro-hippie mother (the fabulous Toni Collette). Joanna Johnston's costumes for Collette and the believably nerdy-looking Hoult are ruthless: mother and son sport complementary hats that appear to have been designed for big-eared teddy bears, and in one scene, Collette wears a furry jacket that Grant's character likens to a yeti. --John Calhoun

More Seen Off Broadway: A dying gay man, his parents, his ex-lover, and Joe Allen’s restaurant: These are the elements that make up Christopher Gorman’s A Letter From Ethel Kennedy at MCC. I attended in a bad mood, expecting a tacky, sentimental comedy. Far from it; this comedy in three scenes is an unsentimental account of the implosion of a Long Island Irish-Catholic family. The dialogue is funny and literate, and any sentimentality is undercut by the playwright’s remarkably ruthless insights. (There’s also a Pirandellian aspect—the lead character has written a play, which is clearly the show we’re seeing). It’s not perfect—some tightening is called for. But this is a funny and moving piece. At any rate, Joanna Gleason’s direction elicits pitch-perfect performances from the cast of five, including Anita Gillette and, from TV’s Queer as Folk, Randy Harrison.

Jeff Cowie’s setting is an atmospheric, pocket-sized edition of Joe Allen’s--right down to the flop musical posters on the wall. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are very precise, Michael Chybowski’s lighting meticulously recreates three different times of day and season, and Jill B. C. DuBoff’s sound design blends show tunes with the ambient noise of a restaurant. Gorman was clearly a talented writer; sadly, he died of AIDS last May. In this production, however, his talented friends have given him a fine farewell.

Long Island Sound is an unproduced Noel Coward play that is being performed for the first time by the Actors Company Theatre. It’s an inversion of his classic Hay Fever: the main character, Evan Lorrimer, is an English novelist hoping for a weekend of peace and quiet at the home of wealthy matron Louise Steinhauser. Fat chance—the house is invaded by an army of pests from Broadway, Hollywood, and high society. As plots go, it’s thin to the point of transparency, and one quickly wearies of seeing Lorrimer aggravated by these vulgarians. Furthermore, there are so many of them—18, by my count—that few stand out of the crowd. The play’s most unusual aspect is its rather shocking—for 1947—gay angle. One character, Lester Gaige, is a swishy Broadway comedian (Danny Kaye?) and, late in Act II, a square-jawed film star (Tyrone Power?) makes a blatant pass at Lorrimer. It’s no wonder Coward couldn’t find a producer for this cranky, too-candid comedy. Anyway, Scott Alan Evans’ production—really a glorified showcase—lacks the disciplined direction and cohesive sense of style that would make this an even a moderately amusing evening.

The Odyssey, produced by Willow Cabin Theatre at Theatre at St. Clement’s, is Derek Walcott’s Caribbean setting of Homer’s epic. An interesting idea, but Willow Cabin’s company of actors is not really up to the task. Many performances are not well spoken, and everyone seems determined to get through the text as fast as possible—not an unreasonable decision, since the show runs nearly three hours. As such, this is a long, long evening. However, Matthew McCarthy’s lighting is something special. Working with a series of light towers that surround the stage on three sides, he creates an astonishing number of evocative effects, mixing strong color, sidelight, and a very bold use of patterns; it’s a major piece of work. John Kasarda’s spare setting, a green deck with a cloth that can become either a backdrop, a floor cloth, or a canopy, is kind of ingenious. Hilary Rosenfeld’s eclectic, heavily Caribbean costumes will be a matter of taste, although they are certainly in keeping with the spirit of the piece. Laura Grace Brown’s sound design is overwhelmed by the constant presence of Cesar Manzano’s music.--DB

Seen On and Off Broadway: Let's call this the week of less is more. I am convinced that sometimes the limits of Off Broadway spaces and budgets force more creative solutions than the bigger stages and pocketbooks of Broadway. In this case, I think that set designer Jeff Cowie and lighting designer Michael Chybowski created a lovely little restaurant (OK, so they copied Joe Allen's) for A Letter From Ethel Kennedy on the tiny stage at MCC (in the company's final production in that space, it seems). Director Joanna Gleason successfully directed Christopher Gorman's play, with great pacing, and made it appropriately funny and sad. On the other hand, I think that Douglas Schmidt's scenic designs for the current revival of Into The Woods are not as successful, although Brian MacDevitt's lighting added (as always) sparkle to the production. I liked Richard Hudson's designs for the West End London production much better; he went for a leaner design with very clever touches. In Schmidt's case, I think a little less "stuff" on stage would have left a little more to the audience's imagination.--Ellen Lampert-Greaux

Seen Near Times Square: Once upon a time, architect David Rockwell was designing a magical space for David Copperfield in a large venue at 49th and Broadway. The space was never completed, and remained empty for quite some time, until the restaurant Noche came along, also designed by Rockwell, with architectural lighting by Paul Gregory and his team from Focus Lighting, including Gwen Grossman and Derek Wadlington. The colorful multi-level space also has a stage area with an installation by Clair Brothers, including lights by Martin Professional and ETC. Looks like there will be some wild nights at Noche in the very near future.--ELG

Seen on the Dealer/Manufacturer Front: Barbizon and JLG Industries, Inc. had an open house on May 14 and 15. Thomas Augusta, sales manager for Barbizon, and Josh Koontz, sales specialist for JLG, demonstrated the latest lifts from JLG, including the AM (AccessMaster®) Series and new DVL (Drivable Vertical Lift) Series, which is drivable at full height with no outriggers.--MSE

Heard on the Street: Jason Livingston, who many of us know as the coordinator of the Big Apple Lights' Big Apple Institute, has joined the architectural lighting firm of Kugler Tillotson in Manhattan. Working in conjunction with principal Suzan Tillotson, one of Livingston's first projects is the lighting of a new library at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC.--ELG