Friday, March 31, 2006

Setting the Scene

Antony and Cleopatra takes place all over the Mediterranean basin. Most of it takes place either in Rome or in Alexandria, but Shakespeare seemed to feel a rather uncharacteristic need for historical and geographical accuracy when he was writing this play, so he sends his characters on errands to Athens and Parthia, and sets battles in Actium and Thessaly. You almost need a big map in the program, so audiences can connect the dots.

There's a good thematic reason for this geographic abundance: the stakes of the little love-game being played out are enormous. One of the most oft-repeated words in the play is "world." Shakespeare doesn't want us to forget that these are the titans of their time, and the scope of their actions and decisions are tremendous. Antony, Octavius and Pompey are engaged in the first and only live-action version of Sid Meyer's Civilisation (or Risk, for the non-geeks among us).

Shakespeare never intended any of his exotic locales to get reproduced onstage. His stage was a bare platform, and the only sets and settings were in the imaginations of his audiences. That's why he had the luxury of leaping back and forth across two continents throughout the play; there was nary even a potted plant or a cardboard tree to transplant.

Many modern productions of Shakespeare's plays adopt the same minimalist approach, or else they settle on a single, flexible--often abstract or impressionistic--set where all the scenes will occur. Gone are the days of massive backdrops and ten-minute set changes (popular with the Victorians, who loved their historical realism). Any sane producer, looking at a play like Antony & Cleopatra, would agree: this play has to take place nowhere, so it can take you anywhere.

The only problem with this is: the Walterdale community loves to build sets. Well, they gripe and moan about it an awful lot, but underneath they love it. What's more, they're really, really good at it. The sets for Lear and Skin of our Teeth were, quite simply, some of the best sets I've ever seen on stage. Our designers are inventive, our builders are tireless, and unlike most theatre companies in town, we actually have robust production budgets.

What we do not have, because of the configuration of our Playhouse, are wings or a fly gallery. That means we can build huge, elaborate sets, but they have nowhere to go. Neither do we have a curtain to close; so even if we wanted to shift our set around, we couldn't hide it from the audience. As a result, Walterdale has developed an aesthetic for "box sets": highly detailed, usually highly realistic, and utterly immobile sets.

By now, you can probably start to see the dilemma. I have an opportunity to make this production the big, elaborate, glamorous affair that it deserves to be. But the nature of the play, and the nature of the playhouse, are contradictory. A&C can't take place in a "box set", but that's the only set we could create that would do a play like this justice.

I'm sure there's a solution. Like my last dilemma (the size of armies), it may involve puppets. I hope not. In any case, I suspect it will take a while to come into focus.

4 comments:

cpc said...

I'd be thinking hinges or screens on wheels. Like popup books... or transformers... or something... But, then, I'm no expert *grin*.

Scott Sharplin said...

Transformers!?! WAY better than puppets! I have a vision of a post-apocalyptic Japanese anime version of A&C with battle-mech warriors roaming the landscape!

I'll just check my budget here...uh... never mind.

Ronster! said...

OOOH! Everyone could have a computer terminal at their seat, running a modified version of Civilization! As the play progresses, they could see the changes taking place on-screen as well! OOOH! How about this! They could actually be playing! And the play could be modified by the outcome of the game! Maybe?

Scott Sharplin said...

Believe it or not, there was a point where I was geniunely interested in creating an audience-participation experiment like that. Not with A&C, mind you (although I did consider presenting optional endings for King Lear), but with newer, more experimental scripts. I think it was kind of like the audience of Millionaire voting on a question, only in this case they would vote in support of different characters, to see who came out on top.

Of course, we'd need a uniquely configured electronic polling system, at the very least, to pull that off. I'll just check my budget here...uh...maybe next year.