Impressionism
Impressionism

The Broadway shows 33 Variations, at the Eugene O’Neill, and Impressionism, at the Gerald Schoenfeld, have two elements in common. The first is star power: Returning to the stage for the first time in 46 years, Jane Fonda plays a dying musicologist sleuthing a mystery involving Beethoven in 33 Variations, while Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen, unseen on Broadway since winning Tonys in the ‘80s, tread cautiously toward romance in the gallery-set Impressionism. The second is finely detailed projections that bring the worlds of classical music and painting, the province of other parts of Manhattan, to vivid life in the theatre district.

Written and directed by Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project), 33 Variations takes Fonda’s character, Dr. Katherine Brandt, from her unsettled domestic life in New York (Samantha Mathis plays her estranged daughter and Colin Hanks her nurse) to Bonn, where Beethoven’s archives are stored. Her objective, as her health fades, is to discover why the composer spent four turbulent years working on the comparatively minor “Diabelli Variations,” and the production depicts the parallel story of their composition in early 19th century Vienna. Jeff Sugg, who co-created the set and projections for last season’s musical, The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, recalls having his gear on hand as the project took shape from rehearsals to productions at Arena Stage in 2007 and La Jolla Playhouse last year. “Moises had been to Bonn and had seen the archives and got to see those sheets of paper first hand. He really fell in love with that and wanted to show those pages to the audience.”

Projected images of those sheets of paper suffuse Derek McLane’s archives set. “Derek’s set is extremely specific but also extremely malleable, so Moises asked me to find, for example, the train station in Bonn,” Sugg says. “I didn’t want to do backdrop projections, so I found a central element as a signifier, in that case, signs. The pages, sketches, and musical notes are one of the projection system elements; the others are those signifiers of realistic places, and the third the ghostly, Muybridge-inspired animations, like horses that canter across the stage and the appearance of a miniature Beethoven, which add a spiritual presence that melds the different worlds together. Being as involved in rehearsal as I was helped me work through those ideas.”

In New York, a small paper screen was added to fly in for a scene in which the sketches of the compositions materialize. “I took the time to further develop things that were added late in La Jolla, so everything had a unity to it, and it didn’t feel stodgy or digital. It was very important to me that the pages retain their parchment texture as projections, that they felt like something from the 1800s. I was interested in using the projections to represent the process of memory, which is often two-dimensional and planar. It’s a funny thing about the horses, for example. I’ve had people come up to me following a performance and compliment me on the carriage. But there is no carriage; they’ve made that up,” Sugg laughs.

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33 Variations
33 Variations

33 Variations, which is scheduled to run through May 24, is run by a Dataton Watchout setup and controlled with a Medialon Manager that takes MIDI triggers from the ETC Obsession III used for lighting control. A Christie Digital S+16K projector is front-of-house, with a Panasonic PTD5700U DLP projector tucked away in the proscenium arch for effects on the smaller screen and a sequence that places the actors in a concert hall setting. The assistant projection designers are Adam Larsen and Jamie McElhinney, with Larsen the show’s animator. Scharff Weisberg provided the equipment, as it did for Impressionism.

Directed by Jack O’Brien (The Coast of Utopia), Michael Jacobs’ Impressionism also gave projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy (Monty Python’s Spamalot) a threefold task. Irons, as photographer Thomas, disillusioned by his experiences in Africa, slowly thaws Allen’s emotionally cautious character, Katharine, who owns the gallery where he works. As they converse (and other characters drop in and out of the storyline) the pre- and post-Impressionist artwork, from Monet to Cassatt, comes into sharp relief, courtesy of McCarthy’s projections on Scott Pask’s tasteful set. “The research was like spending a month in an incredible art museum and being able to focus on aspects like the brushstrokes, which we were able to use as transition points,” she says.

But McCarthy also had to bring to life Thomas’ photos, without visiting Africa, and the work of a fictitious painter in the plot. A half-dozen real-life photographers, found online, contributed their stills for the former. Photographer Andrew French gave a boost to the latter, where images of park benches styled after Harold Altman’s prints have Irons and Allen green-screened into them. “Andy did that photography and supplied a couple of photos of rainy New York. He was my ace in the hole,” says McCarthy.

Of the placement of the images, she says, “From the get-go, when I saw Scott’s set, I wanted something that could cover the whole stage, and I also wanted some smaller projectors to layer in images. The projections had to be able to hit where the real paintings in the show are hung. Then the budget really got tight when the economy tanked. The moving light projectors I wanted to use just weren’t possible. But Spamalot was closing on Broadway, and, as our producer Bill Haber owned those projectors, we could use them.” Watchout is used for playback; the two large projectors are 18K Christies, and there are two Barco R6s, “fantastic, affordable compact projectors for theatrical settings,” says McCarthy. “They’re all in the booth, as everything we need to hit is downstage, so I don’t get that moment that I hate, which is when I turn them on and someone asks, ‘Is there any way to make them quieter?’”

Impressionism is that rare Broadway play to premiere without an out-of-town tryout. When it postponed its March opening by two weeks, the only alarm bells to ring were in the press, McCarthy says. “We eliminated the intermission, something we all favored, as I was locking the show. That meant we had to transition from Africa back to the United States—as Thomas’ heart breaks, and he finds himself at the gallery—and get it done over a Friday to a Monday. We just pulled it together.”

The associate projection designers are Shawn E. Boyle, Austin Switser, and Vita Tzykun; the assistant projection designers are Shawn Duan and Dan Ozminkowski. Impressionism is scheduled to run through July 5.

McCarthy will present a case study on her images for Impressionism as part of the Live Design Broadway Projection Master Classes on May 21 at NYU (livedesignonline.com/masterclasses).

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