John Boesche creates war-torn imagery for the off broadway debut of "Beyond Glory"
A one-performer show about the wartime experiences of eight Congressional Medal of Honor winners honored for their valor in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam might seem a production more worthy than truly interesting. But when the one performer is Stephen Lang — who has portrayed military types onstage in Aaron Sorkin's A Few Good Men and John Patrick Shanley's Defiance, and onscreen (the Civil War epics Gettysburg and Gods and Generals) — you snap to attention. Adapting Beyond Glory, an acclaimed book by Larry Smith, Lang seamlessly adopts the colorful personas of these fighting men in 80 minutes tightly directed by Robert Falls. His portraits include Navy lieutenant John William Finn, who says he fired on the invading Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor mostly because they interrupted his usual Sunday morning sex with his wife; Army first lieutenant Vernon J. Baker, who rose above prejudice against African Americans to serve with distinction in Italy as the Second World War came to a close; and Army second lieutenant (and future Hawaiian senator) Daniel K. Inouye, whose horrific yet inspiring frontline account, also from the Italian campaign, concludes the piece.
First performed in an auditorium at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC, then at military bases and for a special US Senate performance, Beyond Glory had its first theatrical staging at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2005. For its Off Broadway debut at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre, projection designer John Boesche has fine-tuned that distinctive aspect of the show, which he joined in Chicago. Dressed in David C. Woolard's costumes, Lang never pulls a gun from the trunk that set designer Tony Cisek has put on stage. The stark reality of combat is instead underscored by Dan Covey's supple lighting, Cecil Averett's booming audio design, and Boesche's projections, which play on three projection surfaces angled in a semi-circle behind the actor. “Each character gets a very different treatment,” Boesche says. “It's always a first-person story, but occasionally you need to up the ante in the scale, either emotionally or to remind the audience that this one person was part of a very large historical canvas.”
Finn's salty reminiscence is, for example, backed by period Pearl Harbor footage. “He's this quirky guy, but he's linked to this one important moment in history, and the use of the footage helps personalize his story,” says Boesche. The actual black-and-white text from an Army college study questioning the resolve of black men to fight wars wraps around Baker in ironic counterpoint to his bravery. A napalm burst is frighteningly simulated when Army staff sergeant Nicky Daniel Bacon recalls finally gaining the upper-hand against Vietnamese troops. “We admire and understand this person, but for better or for worse, he was capable of inflicting some horror.”
In a stunning moment, the screens run with spreading blood as Army captain Lewis L. Millet savagely bayonets the fresh corpse of a Korean soldier. “That scene is initially very funny, as a map projection traces his career country-to-country, like in an Indiana Jones movie,” Boesche says. “But as his POV shifts more specifically to the war, we laid a computer-generated animation of mist atop still photos recently taken of the mountains of Korea. In the Chicago production, as the hand-to-hand combat got more horrible, I went from the true color of the images to their negative; the white puffy clouds and the soft blue-gray mountains become black and sulfurous, like hell. But in New York, I liked how Dan was washing the stage floor in red at a particular closing moment, so in that final part of the story, I shifted the yellow to a red. It's the most complex media scene in the piece and one that fits that particular character.”
The three projection panels, which are approximately 20' high × 30' wide (20' on the high side and 12' on the low), “are cropped at a diagonal on top, as Tony wanted to keep the design a little off-balance. Rationally, I thought, ‘How can I crop photos to the shape?’, but that made it challenging.” New York's fire codes also obliged Boesche to use a different surface material, “which had a completely different optical character than what we had in Chicago, so some of the images couldn't be read at all. It took time to get it to work.” The panels are crafted from black Contra-H Super Textural Material from Gerriets, backed with Silver Drizzle from Rose Brand to create a textured, dimensional-looking projection surface.
Boesche used Brooklyn, NY-based media artist and programmer Mark Coniglio's Isadora software from TroikaTronix, “a very flexible tool for live-video manipulation that allowed me to make changes on the fly as we switched the screen material,” and a single 10,000-lumen Christie LCD projector. “Isadora allows me to mask or isolate an image on any one of those three screens. The level of control I have over the images makes people think there's more than one projector used.” Scharff Weisberg provided projection gear for the production.
Boesche credits company commander Lang, who had his understudy enact sequences before the screens so he could test the readability and brightness of the projections from different perspectives, for the fluidity of the design. “The amount of script work Stephen put into this gave us a strong aesthetic lead that we just followed,” he says. Beyond Glory is scheduled to end its run at the Laura Pels on August 19.