The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC presented a world premiere of a new translation and adaptation of Alfred de Musset's Lorenzaccio by area playwright John Strand and directed by Michael Kahn from January 18 to March 6. Set in 16th century Florence, Lorenzaccio delves into the lives of the infamous de Medicis, specifically Lorenzo de Medici, friend and cousin to the notorious Alessandro de Medici, Duke of Florence. Lorenzo, ignoring his moral values and personal safety, allies himself with the Duke in order to kill him thus freeing Florence from tyranny. But his path to good intentions are rife with struggles, backstabbing, and more.
With set design by Ming Cho Lee, lighting by Howell Binkley, costumes by Murrell Horton, and sound by Scott Killian, this twisted tale of treachery was a production to behold. Lee was familiar with the play when a student at Yale selected it as a thesis project many years ago, but he refreshed his memory in preparation for this production. “The canvas of the play is broad and very rich, but the play is actually very intimate, much like Shakespeare with many scenes and each scene involves two or three people,” he says. “Essentially I designed a set that is very much a box within a box with tracks cutting through it and with panels that could be shut off to isolate scenes.”
The characters in Lorenzaccio are in a variety of different settings, and this was one of the biggest challenges for Lee and Binkley. “We had to figure out how to make this seamless and fluid and not get tied up in the transitions,” Binkley says. “We took that challenge and made it successful. The scene shifts were rapid and you never felt like you were waiting for something to happen.”
Binkley also decided to break up the stage into zones because much of the show featured scenes in front of sliding walls built into Lee's set. “I had to dissect it because a lot of the show was played in front of a wall slider, while stuff was being pre-set upstage, then the slider would open to reveal the next scene,” he explains. “In a lot of ways it was like a dance plot where your cross light had to cut instead of being able to roll the cuts out. They had to have a hard cut to cut off the slider panels into different zones.” Binkley also used a number of tints and patterns to dapple the sliders in order to delineate the scenes from a castle to an alley to a drawing room and so on. When the action would return to a previous setting, the appropriate imagery would also return.
Lee designed the set to have a somewhat “Italian town square” feel with a number of doorways and corridors leading from the box, which Binkley found to be a big help in creating scene transitions. “Several transitions have a lot of sidelight coming through the doorways which would prompt a set change,” Binkley explains. “I would have a cool system coming through the door stage right, or warm coming through a door stage left. What I try to do is to give the plot and palette the flexibility to build a move and build different looks very fast.”
Lorenzaccio has only a handful of automated fixtures — a High End Studio Spot® and three ETC Source Four® Revolutions™ — but Binkley says there are no “bells and whistles” in the rig. “It was interesting because within certain scenes my lekos were the workhorses for area lighting, downlight, and breakup,” he explains. “When I went to silhouettes or had light coming in through doorways, it was totally a Source Four PAR show. Every light in the rig (of about 275 conventionals) had very specific jobs to do.”
Aside from the set's Italian architecture feel, Lee also found inspiration from a detail of a triptych by Venetian artist Cavalli that shows what appears to be a king alongside a red-cloaked cardinal. Lee happened upon the image in a book while on a fishing trip but could not get it out of his mind. “The two faces staring at you is perhaps the most mean-spirited painting I have ever seen,” he explains. But he was so taken with the image — plus it was of the same period as the play — that he incorporated it into his design. However, Kahn had doubts about using the painting's images throughout the production as he did not want the play to be too ecclesiastical.
A compromise was reached and the painting's faces were fitted into the set and Kahn zeroed in on the original idea of the two faces from the triptych. Using the image “was a very emotional response to a very political and manipulative climate that permeated 16th century Florence,” Lee adds.
When Horton became aware of the amount of red in Lee's set, he set about choosing his fabrics, conscious of how they would look among the scenery. “I saw these beautiful orange/red tones with bluish-red tones on top and beautiful textures, so I did consider every color choice I made so it would work against the red backdrop,” he says. “The simplicity of the set worked well with the architectural and sculptural shapes of the clothes. Also, knowing that the set was glossy and had a shine to it is why I used so much velvet, to make the actors look more sculptural.”
Like Lee, Horton was also influenced by paintings of the time but he wanted to make sure that his designs for the de Medicis and company did not look too typical. “I wanted to bring things to life from these paintings that weren't so recognizable,” he says. “I wanted to create an individual world based on history rather than on the same research that everybody's used before so that the play would feel and look fresh. It was important for this production to feel new and alive without being weighted down with people's perceptions of the Renaissance.”
Horton also studied paintings by Bronzino, Tichen, and Holding, among others, many of whom were not Italian since Europe was heavily influenced by German dress at this time. “You had to have a balance that was masculine and sexy for the men that people could relate to today,” he says. “The biggest challenge was making the costumes distant enough that we believe it's the correct period, but still making it attractive to the modern eye.”