Live Design

A Dish Best Served Cold

by Davi Napoleon on February 1, 2002

Scenes from a love gone wrong: An oversized eye sits against a bright blue drop, peering through light brown scrim as spectators take seats. In the prologue, young lovers dance to discordant music, with a mourning dove and a distorted giggle integrated into the soundscape. The score is reminiscent of The Rink. Yet, when a young man carves a heart in a tree, then stabs it, we are not under the roller coaster but deep inside a tunnel of unrequited love.

The Visit is a dark fairy tale indeed, and designers Derek McLane (scenery), Brian MacDevitt (lights), Susan Hilferty (costumes) and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (sound) have created a world for the macabre love story that is at once expressionistic and relentlessly real. The latest offering from Kander and Ebb, The Visit,based on the 1955 play by Friedrich Durrenmatt, features a book by Terrence McNally. The show premiered last fall under the direction of Frank Galati at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

The story unfolds in the broken town of Brachen. A young Jewess, Claire Zachanassian, fled the town after her lover, Anton Shell, ruined her reputation. After marrying and widowing exceptionally well, she uses some of her multibillions to destroy the town that destroyed her, all the while keeping an eagle eye on it. Now she returns with a misshapen entourage and a chilling offer.

McLane’s design is more closely aligned with dramatic than musical theatre traditions. “Part of the delight of this is that it’s a little bit sick and never sentimental,” he says. “I wanted it to be something much odder [than musical theatre design]. It’s a very emotional piece, and strange as it is, you want to be able to go to a simple space made out of real materials.”

Set in “a small town somewhere in Switzerland” after World War II, the play’s look wasn’t identical to any town or time we might know. MacDevitt, the only member of the artistic team involved with the original, never-realized attempt to bring this piece to Broadway with Angela Lansbury a few years ago, has been consistently attracted to the script, partly because the fable transpires in a town that seems to be somewhere in Europe but might be next door. “People succumb to peer pressure and do what’s in their self-interest, no matter how wrong. The film based on the play backs out at the end, but this sticks to the harshness of the original story,” he says.

Occasionally revealing Swiss Alps in the background upstage center, McLane’s sets created the feel of post-war Eastern Europe. “The mountains are almost like what you’d find on a kitsch tourist postcard of Switzerland,” he says, adding that he searched out every painter who might have tackled the period, and looked at tourist books on Switzerland and photos of Eastern Europe. The moody landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th-century German painter, inspired the mountains and sky, as well as the forest painting, a critical design element.

A Palette of Poverty

McLane used a palette of poverty, with colors that emerged from two elements that defined the space, a forest and a decayed theatre. “The forest,” says McLane, “is a magical mythic place where Claire and Anton first made love, the place they most strongly remember.”

An upstage proscenium frames the action, suggesting a story behind the story. “This is Claire’s piece of theatre, a show she is, in a sense, putting on for the town of Brachen and for Anton,” McLane reflects. “She’s been so disgraced by the town, and now she returns to make this fantastic performance for them.” The designer says meshing the ideas of both a decaying forest and an empty theatre were central to his idea here.

MacDevitt sought to emphasize the archetypal qualities of the forest. This “Jungian dream place allows some surreal and dreamlike qualities to pervade that space, and at the same time, it can be really beautiful,” he says. “The forest is both safe and scary, enveloping and threatening. It is an emotional barometer for what’s going on in the town and what’s going on in the play.”

The prologue begins in spring, “a time of life and fertility,” adds MacDevitt. “After the tree gets stabbed, there’s a quick change into winter. A lot of nature is involved in the lighting.” Leaf-filled branches become bare, but don’t admit much sunlight. “The forest becomes less and less fertile, the way the town does. As a result of his abandoning and betraying her, everything dries up, glazed over with ice.”

MacDevitt felt the forest did much of his work for him; he dappled the stage in templates with a variety of color underneath, changing with the mood and season; he says he made changes “especially through the scrim to give a sense of haze in the forest. We used a moving cloud effect on the scrim and moving mist in the forest. At different times, we used a template wash from the balcony rail, with a scroller on it.” The lighting rig is relatively simple, made up mostly of ETC 575W Source Fours and PAR-64s, some of which are fitted with either City Theatrical AutoYokes and Wybron Coloram II or CXI scrollers.

Heartbreak Hotel, Gray Goods

Two large units roll onto the stage from either side, one representing Anton’s store and upper level bedroom, the other Claire’s hotel. A train engine flies in, and most everything else, including a group of characters and a car, emerges from below. The movement up and down and from either side is as symmetrical as the “eye for an eye” that Claire seeks.

McLane says any train image might suggest the Holocaust, but he wanted the train facade itself to be terrifying. “I found a picture of a train that almost worked but wasn’t quite menacing enough,” he says, “until we made it utterly symmetrical.” As the train invades the landscape, we hear a chugging sound that begins at the rear of the house. Milburn and Bodeen started with a standard whistle, but Galati wanted something more like a scream. “We took him at his word,” says Milburn. “We mixed the scream of a woman and an even wilder scream of an animal, a wapiti, with the European train whistle. It came out very whacked but in a pleasing yet disturbing way.”

As the train flies off, Claire rises from the trap, dead center. With her comes a grotesque entourage of bodyguards, eunuchs, and a butler, surrounded by smoke. “We knew we wanted it to be a mysterious entrance,” says MacDevitt, who created a piercing light from the train, heralding her arrival. He had wanted the smoke to be enveloping, so that when it cleared, “she would just be there. In techs, we weren’t getting as much smoke as we needed. It was a better choice to see her come from the pits, an ascension from Hell. Later on, she and the posse go down into the underworld.”

Having lost a leg in an accident, Claire enters on a sedan chair and is sometimes wheeled about. Her servants bring along luggage and an elegant coffin, painted with black lacquer and trimmed with chrome hardware. Claire stays at the Golden Apostle, a 19th-century-style European hotel, with what McLane calls a “cheesy commercial image” of an apostle painted on Plexiglas and topped with a neon halo. For a time, stage left becomes a banquet hall in the hotel. The eye returns, now as the centerpiece of a chandelier, with torches on either side. A table rolls on, elegantly set, but the food is Saran-wrapped. “They attempt to do something lush,” McLane says, who wanted an image of the townspeople’s terrible frugality.

Shell’s store is well stocked with products that are all gray toned — gray candy, gray vinegar, gray wine. Not much sun shines through the windows either. But somewhere in the boxes are shoes, and they are yellow.

Snappy Shoes, Splendid Sedan

The townspeople are spending money they do not have and dare not take from Claire. Their most visible purchase — yellow shoes. A terrifying production number (Ann Reinking’s) closes the first act. Characters enter in new shoes, and begin a joyous tap dance that turns menacing. Susan Hilferty designed shoes “that felt innocent, with a little turned-up nose, cute, and very European,” she says. The costume shop tracked down shoes that came in plain unpainted leather and weren’t built to withstand the daily dance. “We had to take the soles off and put soles on and tap them, then paint the shoes,” says shop manager Heidi McMath, who sent them to Capezio for some of the work.

In Act Two, the Shell family goes for a ride in the snazzy car Anton’s son has purchased on credit. McLane based the design on a 56 Chevy. The prop shop found parts from a real one, but he removed a few details to make the car more iconic than literal. “The car is about money, about people living beyond their means. They go for this utterly cheerful car ride, and when they say goodbye [to Anton], they say ‘Have a nice walk,’ [even though he is walking to his death]. They’re in such denial.”

Hilferty dressed them in bright, happy colors. Bodeen and Milburn started with literal roaring sounds, heard through a speaker under the hood. “But everyone felt it was too heavy and much too dark,” says Bodeen; they opted for a blend of smaller European vehicle sounds. MacDevitt created a crisp clear day for “a picture-postcard drive filled with hope and possibility.”

Budget issues stood in the way of a dead-on followspot to use with a hard edge for a presentational musical theatre quality. But MacDevitt and his assistants, Charlie Cooper and Yael Lubetzky, did have followspots from the sides for the dramatic scenes. That was most important for a “story with real grit and teeth behind it,” says MacDevitt.

“There were a lot more color scrollers in the plot than we ended up needing,” the LD adds, “because there wasn’t that much of a presentational quality, except maybe in the ball scene.” There, a wand of light rotated around the stage. “Simple incandescent moving lights really ended up being the workhorse of the show,” he says. There were just eight of them, and at least six wound up in each scene. MacDevitt rented a dimmer rack and dimmers to supplement those that the Goodman already had.

Going for a strong sense of nature, even in indoor scenes, everyone avoided artificiality. MacDevitt kept the lighting incandescent and didn’t use moving lights with arc sources for that reason. Technical director Scott Conn says the scene shop experimented with various materials to find something that looked truly bark-like for the trees; they settled on a woven jute (a twine with wire running through it and up and down). If McLane does the show again on a bigger budget, he says he will make several flat pieces of scenery and give the ballroom scene more dimension. Another priority will be to put real bark on the trees.

The Sound of Revenge

Similarly, Milburn and Bodeen wanted a natural acoustic sound from the orchestra and singers. The pair met early on with John Kander and musical director David Loud. “We wanted to keep the sound intimate, in the dramatic world of the play, because when a show becomes way over-miked, it has the reverse effect,” Bodeen notes. “It takes you further away from the emotion of the piece. When it comes from the pit orchestra and singers, you connect with them.”

The team had serious discussions about how much miking was necessary to achieve clarity from the singers. “Often the first reaction from the music department, when voices are overwhelmed by the band, is, as John Kander put it, to come running to the rear of the house, screaming at the mixer, ‘Turn up the singers’ mics, TURN THEM UP!’ But these guys [Kander, Loud, and orchestrator Michael Gibson] were a dream, reducing the orchestrations where necessary and working with the dynamics of the instruments, helping to make the balance work without over-amplification,” Milburn says. “It’s a fine line between a lovely natural sound and the audience straining a bit to hear the vocals. We want them to understand every word. Some nights were a bit shy of where we should have been. Boosting our soloists up just one or two decibels made all the difference, staying honest and real, but giving it that little extra oomph.”

Getting a natural transparent sound on a regional theatre budget could have been more of a problem than it was. Shure donated several wireless mics for the performers and some new KSM 32 condenser mics “that we loved and used for the four woodwinds, French horn, and cello in the pit orchestra,” says Bodeen. “We have been adding 10 to 13 extra milliseconds to our reinforcement systems to achieve the Precedence Effect, or Haas Effect,” Milburn adds.

“That helps localize the vocal amplification to the singer,” Bodeen notes. “It really gives the impression that most, if not all, of the vocal sound is coming from the performer’s mouth, not from a stack of speakers next to the stage. This technique seems to work best when your overall volume isn’t too loud. This wouldn’t work too well with, for instance, a rock band.”

Four over-stage speakers that also served as monitors for the singers usually amplified the orchestra, but sometimes they added some lift to the orchestra by boosting it through the proscenium and cluster speakers. “This gave the impression that all of the orchestra volume was emanating from the pit,” Milburn says. The sound from the pit was pretty dead, which helped control the band’s volume, “so we added some subtle reverb to the orchestra overall, but especially to the brass,” Bodeen says.

Separate A and B speaker systems made an enormous difference. In some intimate moments in the second act, Claire and Anton hold each other while singing. “It can sound very miked and mess with the audio frequencies when they get that close, ruining emotional moments,” says Milburn, explaining that their solution was to send each voice to two separate sets of speakers, eliminating comb filtering, “that funny phasey sound, where the low end drops out.” The vocal loudspeaker B system was made up of two Meyer UPA-1Ps in the apron and six MacPherson IS12s; with a little equalization, the designers found that almost as successful as a UPA-1P.

“Both sets hang next to each other throughout the theatre,” Bodeen explains. The system worked with the chorus, too; by alternating tightly choreographed groups into the A and B speaker systems, they were able to get a fatter yet very natural sound from their amplified vocals.

“With this relatively tight budget, we had to use what was at our disposal,” says Bodeen. “Automation was of primary importance to us, but the Goodman had only 16 channels of LCS, which we were grateful for, but we had 26 vocalists on mic and 23 channels from the orchestra.”

Milburn and Bodeen assigned the chorus into A/B and male/female groups and used the mute scenes assignments on their Soundcraft K3 mixer to turn them on and off; this was triggered by the LCS system. “We submixed the band on our Soundcraft 24-channel Delta, routed into the LCS and also, into the K3 for monitors and such. In the LCS we assigned our soloists, the chorus, and the band to different virtual faders that act like VCA faders, and controlled these groupings on the LCS eight-channel RIFF module,” says Milburn. They programmed preset levels for songs or dialogue and sound board mixer Cecil Averett primarily controlled the show from just a few faders and a “go” button. “He also controlled all the SFX from the LCS 16-channel Wildtracks hard drive system.”

“We used LCS to help trigger playback sound effects and move them around the room,” Bodeen adds. “Sometimes the soundscape came from the stage, sometimes from behind the audience, creating a surround sound that complemented the orchestra.” During one number, when Anton realizes his fate, various pitches of cuckoo clocks come from different places. “We added another creepy dimension to the wonderful cuckoo clock score John Kander created,” Milburn says. “The LCS gave us tremendous ability to move the trains, whistles, and other sound effects around the house, with the push of that same ‘go’ button.”

Rich Folk, Poor Folk

Character clustering informed costumes as much as it did the soundscape. Because the townspeople almost always appear together, Hilferty thought of them almost as part of the scenery. “A peculiar kaleidoscope emerges as different colors come into range and merge and shift,” she says.


Hilferty defined three groups: Claire and her entourage, the townspeople, and the town fathers — a schoolteacher, doctor, police chief, priest, mayor, and athlete, “a class within the town, and the people we get to know the most.” Even though they, too, are impoverished, Hilferty used clothing to separate them from the rest of the town and to establish rank between them.

Setting most townspeople apart in purples, yellows, browns, and blues — “broken bruised colors, colors you would see when somebody punches you in the eye,” Hilferty created extremely busy clothing for them. By contrast, the visitors bring perfect clarity to the town; they are dressed elegantly and only in black, white, and red. Although Claire’s entourage is odd, the silhouettes are distorted only because the bodies are. The garments themselves are impeccably tailored.

The shop “built more than most of the show,” says McMath, adding that some garments were pulled but nothing was rented. Everything that wasn’t done from scratch needed to be adapted to the unusual palette or to strange silhouettes. Costumes for Claire and the town leaders were built. The shop built skirts for the town women from a peasant-texture fabric they distressed. Sweaters were thrifted, pants pulled and adapted. Two eunuchs, one padded to suggest a Laurel & Hardy team, wore black pants, one pair with bright white stripes painted onto them.

The shop sent some work out to the Costume Exchange in Chicago. Most was done in-house, with tailor Paul Chang and draper Laura Robinson jobbed in to help McMath’s staff, which included shop assistant Erin Teufel, shopper Mary Margaret O’Neil, head draper Birgit Rattenborg Wise and her staff, first hands Carol Miller and Dawn Worth, a large group of stitchers, and dyer Cybele Moon. Susan Lemerand handled crafts, Tom Watson wigs, Nan Zabriskie consulted on makeup, and Jenee Garretson supervised the wardrobe crew.

House audio supervisor David Naunton, audio head Cecil Avarett, and mic runner William G. Sanders ran sound. Lighting supervisor Robert Christian and electrics head Sherry Simpson supervised electricians and followspot operators.

Properties supervisor Alice Maguire sent the sedan chair to Chicago Pipe and Bending and Professional Upholstery, both local companies. Properties carpenter James Magee, artisan Angela Guadagnini, assistant Jennifer Fague, head Stephen Kolack, and overhire Alden Vasquez did other properties in-house.

Scene shop head Peter Schwob and associate Conn sent the trees to Hawk Eye in Chicago, building everything else in-house with resident scenic artist Karol Kochvar and his staff, assistant technical director Brian Phillips, shop foreman Patrick Niemi, and numerous carpenters and crew members. The show prompted advances for the one-year-old Goodman mainstage. “It was the first time we had scenery coming out of the floor,” says Conn, who helped design and implement a new automated lift system. It was also the first musical here; the Goodman reconstructed a deep hole, and the theatre had its first pit.

  • Photo: Eric Y. Exit