LA Does Shakespeare, And It's Not A Movie


Renowned theatre director Peter Hall realized a longtime dream this past midsummer: training American actors in Shakespearean technique and performing two very different plays in repertory. The Center Theatre Group (CTG) presented Measure for Measure and A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, June 20 to August 1, with scenery and costumes designed by John Gunter.

Gunter's stage design evolved over the last couple of years as he worked with Hall on similar repertory projects in London. "From the beginning, the idea was to make the emphasis on the actors and the text," he explains, "to put something extremely simple and minimalist on the stage, then give it back to the actors. Therefore, the costumes would be more exotic, so they stand out against the background."

The Ahmanson's 45'-wide, 50'-deep space was surrounded by dark blue wool serge walls. Inside this blue box, the stage was framed by skeletal stud walls made of 3" steel tubing, with four doorways on each side, some with Georgian lintels. Various other back walls of the same style were flown in for some scenes, the floor had a slight rake, and the framing walls were done in perspective to enclose the space and bring the action downstage to the audience. Midsummer used several trees that traveled across the stage into different configurations; Measure had a wall of prison bars. Furniture was Spartan: Shaker-like benches in the court scenes in Midsummer, neoclassical chairs and a desk with a colonnade facade for Measure. The only non-practical set piece was a 9'-high replica of the Capitol building in Measure.

"Measure as a play is rarely done, even in [the UK]," notes Gunter. "It's a hard play, but Peter Hall thought it was a very relevant play to do in America at this particular time. He wanted it [to be set in] the time of the Enlightenment, but I was worried about putting it in that period, because that is very much a costume period, and I wanted to move it forward. It's a mix, deliberately so--the costumes ranged from the early 1800s through to Victorian times." Except for comical characters, such as fops and brothel-keepers, who were dressed extravagantly, Gunter kept the silhouettes streamlined and in somber colors, which helped to unify the costumes of the various 19th-century periods. The CTG costume shop built the costumes for both shows. Richard Pilbrow was lighting designer on the project; sound was by Jon Gottlieb and Philip G. Allen; wigs and hair were by Carol F. Doran. Sets were built by F&D Scene Changes.

For Midsummer, Hall wanted classical Shakespearean costumes, but even within this narrow category there was variety in Gunter's designs. Some characters had very ornate, almost exaggerated Elizabethan shapes, while Hermia and Helena had gowns of the simplest, most elegant lines in pastel fabrics with a slight shimmer to catch the light. Hippolyta, the Amazon queen, wore a simple period gown with a bodice and right sleeve of plate armor, and a swath of leopard skin draped over the left shoulder--a poetic marriage of period costuming with stylized mythological flavor. Titania and Oberon had Elizabethan silhouettes, but the fabrics were ethereal black sheers and brocades with metallic threads and different textured weaves. All the Fairies had fanciful, exotic makeup and wigs.

"I enjoyed working with the costume shop hugely," Gunter concludes. "It was great fun, and it was a real challenge for them. They had some superb cutters, and they poured every ounce of energy into it. I was very happy with what they did, I think we had a very enjoyable time, and we had a nice party at the end of it all." [For more West Coast coverage, see the new "Regional Theatre Closeup" section on page 40.]