Two Gentlemen of Verona: The Musical, the John Guare-Mel Shapiro adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy, features self-adulating characters who love their mirrors and who travel, sometimes in disguise, to pursue other passions. Written during the Vietnam era, it included the rousing number, “Bring All the Boys Back Home.” It might have been too dated to warrant productions since it won the Tony for best musical in 1971. Alas, it isn't dated anymore.
The space at Centerstage, which did the current production, presented an immediate challenge for scenic designer Chris Barreca. “The exits are classic SL and SR,” he says. Where could people hide and appear unbeknownst to one another? How would they enter?
“We batted ideas back and forth,” says director Irene Lewis, a process that she says involved “wild, wild thinking.” The design would have to be abstract, clean, and theatrical, they agreed. It would have to surprise. How about creating scenic pieces that do tricks, never repeat a trick, and create entrance possibilities? But what, exactly?
Characters can enter from below, above, and through inventive doors. An elevator comes up halfway to become a desk, sinks so people can climb out of it, and also serves as a platform. The band, always in view, comes in on a motorized platform on a fixed track that can roll from UL to center and down to the audience.
Two units, each with five mirrored panels that serve as doors, provide multiple entrances through which characters — including an 8' bear with red nails, suggesting danger and whimsy — can weave in and out without seeing each other. The units pivot into assorted positions, as needed and can meet to create a wall of ten doors. Actors can fly in on painters' scaffolding, getting off onto the units, onto rolling ladders that sometimes meet it, or onto the floor when the scaffolding comes all the way down.
“I learned from Robin Wagner that it's often how you get from one thing to another as opposed to what it is when it gets there,” says Barreca, who believes scenery needs to be part of the movement of a musical. “The challenge is to get the scenery to be intrinsic to the performers' action,” he says. “But what happens when you solve, if you will, the design challenges, if you then create challenges for the technical artists,” adds Barreca, who wasn't worried. “Tom Rupp is one of the best TDs in the country. He doesn't expect me to solve all the problems. He enjoys the process of figuring it out,” he says.
Meanwhile, back in the shop, Rupp and his staff thought about how to get actors safely from a motorized flying scaffold, 40' wide and 1,600lbs., that travels from the grid to a midlevel position, 8'4” off deck, and onto two intersecting pivoting mirrored units. The motorized units would have to bear weight adequately, be easy to manipulate, and interact smoothly with each other.
Rupp says they need to develop a linear guide system to stabilize the scaffolding so actors could work on it without swinging uncontrollably. The scaffold, on cables going to a five-horsepower cable drum wench system, had to meet walls that pivoted beyond the downstage from an upstage position when in line with the scaffold.
“We had to break our track system and provide tolerance for the air lift system that's in the pivot units, translating that to the tolerance we need for the pivot unit to still move underneath the guide system,” says Rupp.
“Each pivot unit has tracks on it. The scaffold rises above, breaking at the handrail at the upper level of the pivot unit and allowing a quarter-inch gap between the two. The track continues and ties into the catalog system,” says Rupp. “The casters need to be up because of a break in the track system. There's a short moment in time when the unit is passing over that gap, and we offset the casters so we can maintain the control of it.
“The guide system is basically wheels, 2” in diameter, which travel on a 2"×2" steel tube, similar to the guides they use in elevators. That gives us some resistance to the give and take of casters, so it won't bind as it gets close enough to take the swing out of the unit.”
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