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  • A sense of time and place

  • Working behind the scenes, Oregon Shakespeare Festival artists and technicians mix tradition with technology to create new worlds for their audiences, from outer space in "A Wrinkle in Time" to the Florida land boom of the 1920s in "The Cocoanuts."
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  • Working behind the scenes, Oregon Shakespeare Festival artists and technicians mix tradition with technology to create new worlds for their audiences, from outer space in "A Wrinkle in Time" to the Florida land boom of the 1920s in "The Cocoanuts."
    In the stage premiere of Madeleine L'Engle's classic novel "A Wrinkle in Time," the set had to take Meg and her companions through space and time in search of her missing physicist father. A whole team of designers — Christopher Acebo (scenic), Shawn Sagady (video), Robert Wierzel (lighting), Alex Jaeger (costume), Paul James Prendergast (sound) and Lynn Jeffries (puppets) — employed video projections, lighting effects and costumes embedded with electronics to create a science fiction world.
    "It was fun and exciting to try and put science fiction on stage in a way that was understandable and entertaining to the audience," says Michael Maag, manager of OSF's lighting and video department. "We had a great time playing with the technology — from old-school technology like overhead projectors to the most modern projectors."
    One video projection captures the danger Meg must overcome by displaying a fog of evil darkness creeping over stars and multi-colored galaxies in the universe.
    In other scenes, she travels to the planet Camazotz and meets a sinister man with red eyes who takes over the mind of her younger brother.
    OSF's lighting and video department equipped the actor playing the red-eyed man with glasses outfitted with red LED technology.
    "The LEDs are connected to a computer chip for the man with red eyes. They glow steadily until he presses a button. Then they twirl in a hypnotic pattern," Maag says.
    The department also made glasses for a benevolent character named Mrs. Who. At first, Maag says he wrote programs that made the glasses glow with a circling rainbow effect.
    "We were going down that path, but we found it was so distracting that people were paying more attention to what the glasses were doing than what people were saying," Maag says, adding he switched the lights' color to a less distracting choice.
    Mrs. Which, another character who helps Meg, wears diamond-like jewelry studded with randomly blinking LED lights to create a twinkling effect, he says.
    For other scenic effects, OSF employed long rows of lights running along the stage, as well as a disco-like ball to reflect light in a rotating pattern over the stage and audience. The disorienting effect helps capture the feeling of traveling through space and time.
    Since the novel and play are set in the 1960s, OSF workers also used older technology, including an overheard projector and a 16 mm projector common in classrooms decades ago, on stage. Maag says they considered using the 16 mm projector to project scenes, but the noise and risk of film breaking made them abandon the idea.
    Instead, they used modern video projectors to splash various scenes, including a forest scene and an exploding nuclear bomb, onto a house-shaped backdrop. OSF's painters created a raised, three-dimensional surface and painted the backdrop to make it appear peppered with moon craters. OSF workers angled lights across the craters to enhance the shadows even more, Maag says.
    Workers relied on more traditional techniques to create the set for "Cocoanuts." Scenic designer Richard L. Hay says he turned to 1920s postcards and advertisements promoting Florida vacations for inspiration in designing the set. The postcards and ads were not realistic, but instead had a flat, stylized graphic look, he says.
    Postcards and ads also helped inspire the color scheme of the set.
    "Rich, golden, sunny colors and the blue of the sky and water were prominent in Florida postcards of the time," Hay says.
    He designed a new postcard using conventions of the time, which was blown up to form the image on a curtain that drops down from above the stage. Curtains would have closed in from the sides or dropped down from the top of the stage in vaudevillian times.
    "We wanted to acknowledge staging conventions of musicals of that time," Hay says.
    The beach scene on the curtain features lettering, a cheerful sun, palm trees and an expansive blue sky.
    For most of the play, the action takes place in the lobby of the Cocoanut Hotel, which includes a front hotel desk and views of the beach through a window.
    The curtain serves as a backdrop for vaudevillian-style musical routines and comedy skits, and also conceals the stage during a critical scene switch to two adjoining hotel rooms with beds. Stage pieces for the hotel rooms are divided into two halves that can be quickly pushed on tracks onto the stage by four people.
    "They push as fast as they can, the lights come up and everybody's surprised," Hay says, referring to the audience's delight at seeing the stage so unexpectedly transformed.
    The architectural design for the Cocoanut Hotel was inspired by a fusion of Cuban and Spanish Colonial architecture that was popular in Florida in the 1920s, Hay says.
    Even the floor of the stage received special treatment. It's emblazoned with the words "Florida By The Sea" and includes images of a sun and palm fronds. Hay says while the play includes musical numbers featuring many actors, at other times only a few people are on stage. The decorated floor helps draw the eye.
    Many of the set pieces roll on casters for ease of movement, but also to match the spontaneous nature of much of the play. Actor Mark Bedard, who channels Groucho Marx's character Mr. Hammer in "Cocoanuts," improvises new one-liners and witty puns for each staging of the play, ensuring that audiences never see the exact same version.
    "A lot of creation was done in rehearsal," Hay says. "We didn't want anything to have a fixed location so the director and choreographer could reposition the set pieces. Sometimes it was a surprise to me what they did."
    Although much of the play's set harkens back to the past, OSF employees devised a number of innovations for the production, including an automated system for dropping the curtain and a specialized lighting system.
    Hay says the lighting designer wanted foot lights at the front of the stage to give the set an old-fashioned look. But the director and choreographer wanted actors to be able to sit down and move at the front of the stage.
    The solution was to use LED technology to make lights that stand only two inches above the floor, rather than the more usual six inches.
    "It was a lot of fun working on 'Cocoanuts.' We encountered headaches along the way, but we found solutions to them," Hay says.
    Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@mailtribune.com or by phoning 541-776-4486.
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