The headlines centered on the Broadway debut of Katie Holmes, but the real news regarding the revival of Arthur Miller's All My Sons at the Schoenfeld is the up-to-the-minute production given to the 1947 piece. The director, Simon McBurney, heads the UK-based theatre company, Complicite, renowned for its experimental shows, and he has abstracted the staging of the naturalistic play. John Lithgow, cast as World War II profiteer Joe Keller, introduces the show and sets the stage. He and his fellow actors, including Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and Holmes, are seated offstage, in view of the audience.
They enter and exit a barebones environment, stripped to its essentials — a screen door on the clapboard rear wall, some chairs, a lawn, fencing, and a tree blown down in the opening scene — designed by Tom Pye. Paul Anderson's brooding lighting is matched aurally by the persistent undertow of an underscore by sound designers Christopher Shutt and Carolyn Downing. Adding undercurrents of its own is the high-definition projection and video design by Finn Ross for Mesmer, the UK group that has contributed to Complicite productions like the 2007 Olivier award winner A Disappearing Number.
“I'm not used to working the way we did,” says Ross. “Typically with Simon, we sit in rehearsal rooms and throw stuff in, and see how people respond. But this is straight drama, classic American playwriting. There are, however, lots of big speeches, which were ripe for some visual treatment. What's going on around them with sound and lighting makes it hard to ignore what the characters are saying, though the intent was never to distract.”
The constant elements on the rear wall are a single window, suggesting the Keller house, which would have been too “overbearing” to project in greater detail on stage. “It nicely balances the screen door, and when lights go on and off, you get a sense of things being hidden from view. Adjusting the shadows and colorings in the window was a labor of love for my associate, Brian Beasley,” Ross says. A deliberately slow-moving sequence of cross-fading clouds in operatic colors wafts across the distressed wooden wall. “It's a heightened sense of nature and reality,” adds Ross. “This is not a normal day, but an exceptional one for these people.”
The play's three acts have “a distinct color set,” Ross continues. “The first act, in the early morning, has a light blue gradient, and gentler, fluffier clouds. The clouds become more stormlike as the tension rises. Act Two is at sunset, with burnt reds and oranges that give way to a super-intense and insanely contrasting fire in the sky look, beyond reality, as George [Christian Camargo], Ann's truth-telling brother, arrives with his revelations. And the third act is at night, a deep dark blue.”
Ross says he and Beasley spent three weeks “making clouds,” color-rendered in post-production from time-lapsed HD footage of skies shot from his London rooftop and from his associate's rooftop terrace in Hell's Kitchen, overlooking New Jersey. A Nikon D80 digital camera captured the clouds, which were then tweaked on Mac Pros running AfterEffects CS3, Photoshop CS3, and Final Cut Pro Studio 2. Ten hours of HD clouds were loaded into the system. The show is run on an MA Lighting grandMA console, using three Green Hippo V3 Hippotizers (one running in single and one running in pan mode, with the third as backup) and three “robustly colorful and amazingly quiet” (according to Ross) Panasonic PT D10000 projectors, all administered by a Paragon KVM system. The equipment is supplied by New City Video & Staging, Inc.
Ross credits his programmer, Peter Vincent Acken, for marshalling the components. “All the software works very hard; indeed, we found new and inventive ways to crash the servers as we went on, and to solve problems as well. HD in theatre is still a relatively untrodden path,” he says. “Because bits of the set are flown quite far downstage, we needed to cut in behind them with the projections, so we used two of them FOH cross-projecting from left-to-right and right-to-left, with a soft-edge blend down the middle. One projector projects onto the grass square, which is best appreciated from the balcony.”
Stock footage of factory workers and assembly lines, sourced from and telecined in HD by Yorba Linda, CA-based Buyout Footage, parallel the urgency of the performers' movements on stage at key moments. Toward the end, as Chris realizes the extent of his father's duplicity, he is surrounded by modern-day images of people, which Ross shot with his Panasonic AG HVX 200 HD video camera on New York streets. “He learns that there is something bigger than him, beyond his family, and the imagery reflects the play's sentiment that we are responsible to our society at large as well as ourselves, which is very relevant at this time in American politics. People ask Simon why he uses so much technology in his shows, and his answer is that he uses it as another actor. I hope we managed to create that this time.”