Seen in Toronto: Once upon a time there was place called Middle Earth. Many of us discovered it in JRR Tolkien’s wonderful books, others in the recent film versions. Now The Lord of The Rings is on stage for the first time in an epic, three-and-a-half-hour production at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, Canada, where Frodo and Bilbo are leading a merry band of hobbits into darker times, with the wise Gandalf the wizard at their side. Directed by Matthew Warchus, with sets and costumes by Rob Howell, lighting design by Paul Pyant, sound design by Simon Baker (for Autograph), video/projections by The Gray Circle,and special effects by Gregory Meeh, I’d wager to say this is the largest production that any of the creative team has worked on. One of the stars of the production, technically speaking, is the stage itself. The old stage at the theatre was removed and replaced with a turntable made in the UK by Delstar Engineering and shipped over. With a total of 17 lifts that move in a seemingly infinite number of configurations as the unit turns in a surprisingly quiet manner, the turntable helps move the action from one location to another as the production progresses in a very fluid, cinematic manner. At the center of the turntable is an elevator that descends into the trap room below the stage (a room that has been pressurized for the effective use of fog and smoke). Here actors can get onto the lift that takes them as high as three meters above the center of the stage. A very dramatic use of this effect is when Gandalf the Gray returns (presumably from the dead) as Gandalf, an all white wizard, and rises to the amazement of all on stage (he was meant to arrive on a white horse, but his noble steed is waiting in the wings, perhaps for a later production).
Described as a journey from light (the action begins in a hobbit home called Bag End) to darkness (dense forests and underground tunnels) to a new dawning, this saga has pushed many aspects of technology to new limits. The sound, for which Baker should be congratulated, is very clear, and voices can be heard over an orchestra (squeezed into a very small pit beneath the stage and next to the trap room) and a click track with additional music and special effects. Meyer Sound line array loudspeakers are the center of the system, with a Digico digital console for control, and Sennheiser wireless microphones for at least 64 of the performers (with new batteries for every performance, if not every act).
The lighting rig has 160 moving lights overhead and FOH, primarily Vari-Lites, Martin, and Clay Paky, plus conventional fixtures including ETC Source Fours, many with Wybron scrollers or CXI units, and Robert Juliat Followspots (just to touch on a few of the products in the massive rig) all run by a Strand 500 series console (with a second one for back up just in case). A Strand 520 series console as a remote moving light desk and a second one as a special effects desk, both triggered by the main console. Fog and smoke created by a variety of machines including those by Le Maitre and MDG. More about The Lord of The Rings in the May issue of Live Design’s TQ, but take it from me... this is a massive undertaking and the designers and technical team should get giant kudos for pulling it off. Many of them were in the theatre since last December. That should give you an idea of the complexity of it all. –Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
Seen Off Broadway: Restoration comedy is a field day for contemporary designers. Trouble is, the plays aren’t often revived, and no one’s been writing them since, well, about 1700. Into this breach has stepped playwright David Grimm, who has filled the gap with Measure for Pleasure—and I can safely say that “into the breach” and “filled the gap” are two of the milder examples of the euphemisms that stud his exuberantly bawdy script, which brings the sexual mores up to date while adhering to period conventions and throws in a bit of Oscar Wilde besides (not to mention tossed-off references to Seinfeld, Boy George, and The Nanny). The tongue-in-cheek “Parental Advisory: Explicit Verse” stamped on the Playbill is well-earned for this Public Theater production, which toward the end calls for the conversion of the Anspacher Theater into a scandalous recreation of England’s notorious Hellfire Club, complete with erotic statuary positioned on the theater’s columns and outrageously, umm, “virile” codpieces for the male performers.
If Measure for Pleasure was nothing but a jokebook of sniggering sexual references, its two-and-a-half-hour length would be tiresome by about the 20-minute mark. But Grimm and director Peter DuBois have structured the piece to ascend from the gutter laughs of the broadest kind of comedy to a ringing affirmation of love—heterosexual, homosexual, and maybe a few other varieties—guaranteed to put a smile on the face of even the most puritan of audience members (the last, hard-won kiss is particularly sweet). The plot defies concise summation, but here it goes—valet Will Blunt (Michael Stuhlbarg, strikingly different here than in The Pillowman last season) is head over heels for a transvestite prostitute, Molly Tawdry (Euan Morton, Taboo’s Boy George), who has a yen for the womanizing Captain Dick Dashwood (Saxon Palmer), who has set his roving eyes on the upstanding Hermione Goode (Emily Swallow), who has caught the attention of the raffish Sir Peter Lustforth (Seinfeld’s Newman, Wayne Knight, in another surprising transformation), who is fed up with his sex-starved wife, Lady Vanity Lustforth (Suzanne Bertish)—who is attended to by Molly. Hermione’s censorious guardian, Dame Stickle (Susan Blommaert), adds to the shenanigans. There is a duel. Dildos are involved. That about sums it up.
Bringing all this off the page falls to the ensemble, which is excellent, and the designers, who do outstanding work. A thrust stage has been laid down at the Anspacher, with new settings popping up through a trapdoor that is, ah, erected, drawbridge-style, several times during the show. You’re bound to remember Alexander Dodge’s cheerfully vulgar evocation of the Hellfire Club but his drawing room for the Lustforths is nicely ostentatious and Blunt’s quarters suitably downmarket. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting tends toward ambers and pinks to accent the drawing rooms and, supplemented by fog, generates a convincing dawn for the duel sequence. The detailed soundscape, particularly for outdoors segments, is credited to Tony Smolenski IV and Walter Trarbach, who worked as well with a pleasant score composed by Peter Golub. A style consultant, B.H. Barry, helped with the period details, but Anita Yavich’s design for the smashingly elaborate costumes, samples of which are pictured, was clearly allowed to run wild. Nothing succeeds like excess. Measure for Pleasure is scheduled to end its run soon, but the play should find a happy home in other theaters, in towns where community standards are a little relaxed.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. But what happens when you do succeed—should you just keep working the same vein, or tackle new horizons? Following the triumph of Doubt, playwright John Patrick Shanley announced a trilogy of plays, all based on some facet of his life experience, and all having a one-word title beginning with the letter “D.” The third play is as yet an unknown quantity, but the second, Defiance, has landed at the Manhattan Theatre Club with a dull thud, enough to suggest that the closer should be titled Desist and left unproduced till he figures out what he might want to say. It’s not a terrible play by any means; stiffly acted, perhaps, but there are some good ideas, just too many of them to fit in Shanley’s chosen 90-minute time frame. Doubt was a perfect miniature; Defiance heaps themes onto its plate, disappoints by taking tiny bites, then walks away from the table abruptly with a weakly contrived ending.
Set in spring 1971 at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Defiance centers on Lt. Colonel Littlefield (Stephen Lang), whose do-gooding is compromised by his lust for glory—and, as we see in his somewhat Clinton-esque figure, other lusts as well. While the new play ups the number of characters to six, as in its predecessor three others are of major consequence. They are Littlefield’s elected executive officer, Captain Lee King (Chris Chalk), a disenchanted black man, who plays everything by the book but resents his superior’s playing of the race card; the camp’s new chaplain, White (Chris Bauer), whose genial attitude masks a zealous conservative streak; and Littlefield’s politely discontented wife, Margaret (Margaret Colin), who irritates her husband by siding, morally, with the couple’s draft-dodging son. There’s a lot going on here—in fact, some of the same timeless themes as Doubt, aligned differently—but the detonation into drama doesn’t happen until late in the story, and the threads are left hanging as the show sprints toward the finish line. Doug Hughes again directs energetically, but maybe the wrong kind of energy; Lang and Chalk mostly shout and snarl, and the contradictions of the wife and the chaplain are unsatisfyingly scripted, giving the actors little foundation to build convincing characters upon.
Hughes has retained the same design team for City Center Stage I’s makeover into an army base, and all turn in professional work. John Lee Beatty provides a woodsy backdrop for his revolving turntable, used less imaginatively than in Rabbit Hole, but nonetheless moving sets including a cozy home and a makeshift barracks dancehall (pictured) cleanly and concisely. Pat Collins doesn’t have the same opportunities for noir-ish lighting that she had in Doubtbut makes the most of the new play’s outdoor illumination. Catherine Zuberspit-and-polish military costumes nicely reinforce the period. The standout work is composer and sound designer David Van Tieghem; the show opens with a barrage of beautifully orchestrated martial sounds, like helicopters, that fill the space from every angle. [No audio provider is listed; the lighting is credited to Hayden Production Services and video equipment to New City Video, not that video was much in evidence.] But a pall hangs over the whole show, caused by the expectation that lightning would strike twice for the creative team, and the disappointment that set it when it failed to materialize. --Robert Cashill
Seen In Brooklyn: Okay folks, If you haven’t seen it, hurry up and get a ticket (if there are any still available) to see the formidable Kate Valk in The Wooster Group’s production of The Emperor Jones, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn. Valk, as Brutus Jones, the self-appointed emperor of an island in the West Indies, is onstage for almost every minute of the one-hour production that is directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, with video by Christopher Kondek, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, and sets by Jim Clayburgh.
I found my heart pounding along with the drumbeat in the original score by David Linton, as Valk’s Emperor Jones flees from both the natives he has exploited and his own haunted past as a railroad porter turned criminal back in the United States. Valk premiered this role, which she plays in black face, in 1993, with Willem Dafoe in the role of the white businessman (now played by Scott Shepherd, who alternates in the role with Ari Fliakos). The current revival reinforces the clarity in which The Wooster Group’s production reveals the force of O’Neil’s text. Clayburgh’s set has two potted palms to evoke a tropical environment and a wheel chair covered in brown fabric that serves as throne and tree trunk, with green leaves on seat. There are also three TV monitors that throb with the images created by Condek; these range from distorted images of the actors faces to a small animated ship to abstract shapes that seem to explode with the music.
The Wooster Group was an early champion of the use of video on stage, often in a gritty, deconstructed, or disjointed way, with actors of stage seen in the production via a live feed, or one actor interviewing another in plain sight of the audience with the edited version “on TV.” In this manner the video plays an interesting role, almost like that of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action or adding another layer to the production, and not just serving as eye candy in the background. This use of technology puts The Wooster Group at the forefront of the video revolution, while a performance like Valk’s as the Emperor Jones, puts her in that rare galaxy of actors who command the stage so forcefully. –ELG