Moving House


In Eugene O'Neill's last play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, a tenant farmer and his daughter occupy a house up on blocks. For a recent production at the Goodman in Chicago, set designer Eugene Lee found a perfect representation of such a house on a farm in Connecticut. In fact, he liked it so much, the designer wanted to move the entire structure to the Goodman stage.

"He did research in New England and located a farmhouse he thought we could get," explains Goodman production manager Max Leventhal. Lee, who put a foundry into a theatre for Sweeney Todd, wanted to place the farmhouse onstage and lock it into a barren rocky landscape with a bleak mud wall. Yes, Lee wanted to move the landscape, too.

The shop researched and reached a compromise. They found a couple who took apart barns by hand and resold the material; the couple agreed to rebuild a house, using genuine clapboard, a tin roof, windows, authentic everything. Even the water pump worked. Because the show would travel to New York (the production recently opened at the Walter Kerr on Broadway), flameproof fiberglass rock substituted for real rocks, which weigh about 100lbs per cu. ft. Textured with flameproof cork and dyed, it looked real.

Director Daniel Sullivan says Lee wanted to tilt the house, "so it looks as though it's falling down [and has] an 'earthquakey' feel, with landscape blocks that look like stones, like skulls, like the dead." Sullivan saw the piece as naturalistic, even though the reality is heightened, and thought Lee perfect for the project. "There is almost a spooky reality to everything Eugene does," he says.

The second of four acts is set in the interior of the house, but Sullivan decided against that because of the mechanical effort involved. By placing the house close to the proscenium line, actors sitting on house steps are close to the audience and characters are as confined onstage as they are in the play's world. The house acts as an acoustic sounding-board for voices when actors lean against it.

Richard Woodbury's ultra-realistic soundscape complemented the set, with farm animals mooing, baying, and snarling. Crickets talk at night, birds by day, all of this background environment that doesn't call attention to itself. Woodbury also wrote music to frame scenes, avoiding a traditional Irish sound and opting for an American feel. Unafraid of bold evocative moments, Woodbury says, "The play in no way tries to be subtle with its emotional content. It's a fairly dark play, with a lot of very earthy qualities." He didn't want to underscore the story, but rather comment on what transpired and foreshadow the subsequent scenes during transitions.

Jane Greenwood, who designed the costumes, also did Jose Quintero's landmark production in 1973, with a far more abstract, minimal set by her late husband, Ben Edwards. "You were very aware of the sky and the only things there were the things they really needed to forward the play," Greenwood recalls.

This time, knowing that Lee's set required real clothing, Greenwood was more aware of the period and did considerable research. When the character of Steadman arrives in his riding clothes, he wears a correct period jacket, something that only a wealthy man would have.

Last time around, Greenwood recalls finding a dress for Colleen Dewhurst, who played Josie, in stock at Brooks Van Horne, in a basement collection of old clothes and rags racks. "We put a dress on Colleen, and she said, 'Oh my god, don't I look awful,' and we said, 'This is it." Greenwood says that because the garment was sold old, it lost whatever period it might have had in it.

Greenwood had two dresses made of 20s country fabric in the Goodman shop for Cherry Jones, who gained 20lbs for the overweight Josie. The garments grew with rehearsals, where Greenwood moved hems and tweaked here and there, decisions mandated by performance needs. "We made the buttonhole in the right place and moved the buttons [so she could button easily], all the things the audience isn't aware of...if anybody realized how much work goes into a old work dress, to give it the right shape and lack of shape." Greenwood found a real dress for Josie's "dress up" dress, which was much too small for Jones. It seemed to Greenwood that the dress was "perhaps something that had been around that might have been her mother's at one point." There were copies of it, ranging in colors from a dark blue to warmer, subdued burgundy red for the moonlight scene.

Greenwood says the play hit her harder this time. "I was much more aware of the sadness of this play," she says. A young motherless girl, now 28, who had grown up in so bleak a situation, struck her. "She had to have veneer of masculinity to survive in that group," the designer notes. "And yet in the age she was growing up, the early 20s, the men she was living with would have frowned upon [her] dressing as a man."

Of course, her clothes would be practical. Jones asked for an apron in the opening scene, when Josie chops wood. "She would have an old flour sack and put a string on the end of it," Greenwood decided instead. "Josie doesn't care about clothes; she needs something to protect her workdress because the fabric would get worn unless it had some protection."

Issues specific to this production included Steadman's fall into the water; Greenwood constructed clothes out of cotton that wouldn't shrink when washed each night. And actor Roy Dotrice, who plays Josie's father, became too comfortable in a 50s jacket that Greenwood says made him look "like a used car salesman." She took it apart, recut it, gave it a high-button closure and a new cotton lining, dipped it to make it darker, and returned "his" 20s jacket. Everyone was happy.

Greenwood loved returning to the play, having been "apprehensive in the beginning about how I would go there again. No two productions are ever the same, but it was wonderful. And O'Neill is so remarkable. You're brought up short with the brilliance of his work."

When the Minneapolis-based Margolis Brown Theatre Company needed a set designer for its world premiere Starry Messenger-A Fantasia on the Life of Galileo, they chose an old collaborator: Kyle Chepulis. Years ago, the designer had worked with founders Kari Margolis and Tony Brown on shows at BACA, and site-specific productions at Coney Island, the Brooklyn Museum, and St. Clement's Church in New York. "Out of the blue, maybe six, eight years later, they called about this show," says Chepulis, who worked with Margolis and Brown during the workshop phase of the production in September 99.

Billed as a "celestial extravaganza," Starry Messenger, produced this spring at the Children's Theatre Company (CTC) in Minneapolis, features a rocket that flies in, a universe that envelops the stage and auditorium, a flying bed, and no less than three Galileos, as well as a cast of 25. "It's a big-ass production," Chepulis says.

Initially, Chepulis wanted to build a model of the planets, or orrery-"one of those things you built in science class"-that would move over the audience. When that wasn't feasible, he, Brown, and Margolis turned to video and slides. Projections are thrown on the walls, a moon that flies in, and a screen onstage. "The video projector is on a video tripod with a fluid head," the designer says. "It's up in the booth, in the back of the house. It's shooting about 30', 40' in some places. We bought a really long-throw Buhl Optical zoom lens, so the video image is almost like an additional character."

Some of the images, which were designed by Brown, are projected onto a 14' round screen at the back of the stage, behind a puppet stage used for Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham, one of two other shows in rep with Starry Messenger at the CTC. "I had to modify the screen to project through the proscenium of that puppet stage," Chepulis says. "We've got things squeezed all over, especially in the backstage area."

Chepulis used superslides-square 1:1 aspect slides-for the projections. "I used them at Sotheby's a while back," he says, referring to a display of the Duke and Duchess of York's belongings he designed [see TCI April 98]. "Nobody uses them anymore, but they're cool, because you're using the full aperture of the projector, so you can get really huge images."

"Everything moves all over the stage. Instead of having things on tracks, the actors move everything," Chepulis says of the production, adding, "At no point do we go to black onstage. There's no fade to black and a set change. As soon as you walk into the house, from that point until the end of the show, at no point do we allow theatre magic to happen that the audience cannot see."

The designer amends this statement slightly, saying, "The only time we go to black is a scene in all UV light." This is a nighttime flying bed scene, where a young Galileo is wheeled around on a bed mounted on casters and a scissors lift. As the bed is moved, large Styrofoam planet shapes painted with UV colors are manipulated by actors, and there are projections on the walls of Galileo flying around the universe as a child.

"They couldn't get the UV lights," Chepulis says. "So I called Big Apple Lights, and initiated the rental. There are two Wildfires and two Altmans and they're working great." In addition to procuring the UV lights, Chepulis, under the auspices of his company Technical Artistry, sold Margolis Brown Theatre Company the video projector, a Proxima 9310, and the lens, all at cost. "I mean, yes, I'm a crafty businessman and all," he laughs, "but I don't care about the business so much, it's about the show."

On working with Margolis and Brown (and lighting designer Brian Aldous), Chepulis says, "It's not like, 'Here's your department.' They're all amazingly interlinked, that's why we work together so well as a team," adding that the team's motto could be "Never done that? We'll try it." He adds, "Tony's very quiet, an immense genius, and they love Kari out here. It's all magic to them; what she can do pushes the boundaries of what children's theatre is about."

Although Chepulis says it's a "bit of a race for the linesets" at CTC, he praises the production crew at CTC's shop, singling out production manager Jim Tinsley. "[The crew] made this whole elevated walkway, out of truss, in-house," he marvels. "How did they do that?"

Besides Brown, who did music and multimedia, and Aldous, other production personnel include: Christine Field (costumes), and Rick Paul (props). Starry Messenger opened in February and runs through April 1.

Actor's Theatre of Louisville, KY Humana Festival of New American Plays

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Cleveland Opera, Cleveland, OH Madame Butterfly Set design: Richard M. Isackes Costume design: Jeffrey E. Gryczan/Malabar Ltd. Lighting design: Cynthia Stillings

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Detroit Repertory Theatre, MI The Angels of Lemnos Set design: Robert Japkowsky Costume design: B.J. Essen Lighting design: Tom Schraeder Sound design: Burr Huntington

Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, OH The Cripple of Inishmaan Set and lighting design: Brian c. Mehring Costume design: Reba Senske Sound design: Eric D. Cronwall

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