Sunday, June 10, 2012

Life is a Dream--Scene Design

Clarin in the prison
Life is a Dream, by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, was produced Fall Semester, 2011 in the Snow Black Box Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Synopsis
Basilio, King of Poland has a secret.  He has kept his son, Sigismundo locked away in a tower, unaware of his royal lineage since birth because an astrologer told him his son would rise up against his father and bring chaos to the country.   Calderón uses the Sophoclean idea that in trying to avert ones fate, the person ensures that the fate would come to pass.  Very similar to Oedipus where his father and mother pierce the young prince's ankles and leave him on a hillside to die because the oracle told them he would rise up against his father and marry his mother.  By attempting to avoid their fate, they set the wheels in motion that caused it to be.

Sigismundo in prison

Rosaura is a jilted woman, dressed as a man coming to kill the man who has spurned her, Astolfo, the Duke of Muscovy.  Rosaura and her squire, Clarin stumble across Sigismundo in his prison by accident.  They are discovered by Clotaldo, Sigismundo's jailer and taken for questioning.  They are to be sentenced to death, but Clotaldo recognizes Rosaura's sword as being the one he left for his son.  Rosaura does not know that Clotaldo is her father and Clotaldo does not know that Rosaura is indeed a daughter, not a son.  Clotaldo is torn between his duty to his country and king and his duty to his family.  He takes Rosaura and Clarin to stand before Basilio.

Clotaldo recognizes the sword he left for his son

Basilio is approaching the end of his reign and must declare an heir.  Astolfo, Duke of Muscovy and Princess Estrella are children of Basilio's sisters and together they would present a strong case to be King Basilio's joint heirs.  Astolfo has come to Poland to woo Princess Estrella, his cousin.  She questions him about the woman's likeness in the locket he wears.

Princess Estrella question's Duke Astolfo about the woman's likeness he wears in a locket around his neck

King Basilio, in an effort to clear his conscience announces to the court that he actually has a son and heir named Sigismundo.  He conspires to drug Sigismundo, bring him to the palace, dress him as a prince and wake him, telling him the years in the prison were a dream brought on by some dementia that he has been miraculously healed from.  Sigismundo is disoriented and angry.  He lashes out and kills a servant, attempts to rape Rosaura (who is now dressed as a woman and going by the name Astrea, attending the Princess), and injures an attendant.  Basilio determines that Sigismundo is too violent and commands Clotaldo to drug him again and return him to the prison and to convince him the time in the palace was just a dream.

Sigismundo forces himself upon Rosaura

Sigismundo awakes in prison and grieves at his behavior in the dream.  In the very famous soliloquy from this play, he resolves that whether awake or in a dream one must live a moral life and make correct decisions.

For Basilio, though it is too late.  The people have discovered he has an heir and wish to be liberated from his tyranny.  Soldiers from the army take the prison to free Sigismundo and make him their de facto leader.  Still unconvinced that he is awake and not dreaming, Sigismundo decides to lead the army against his father the king.

Rosaura, no longer masquerading as anyone else, dressed as a woman yet armored, pledges her sword to Sigismundo provided he allows her to slay Astolfo to restore her honor.  Sigismundo ponders what she would do if he attempted to take her honor and she tells him she would kill him.  Sigismundo agrees to her terms.

Sigismundo and Rosaura negotiating

The battle breaks out and Basilio's forces, led by Astolfo are defeated.  Basilio throws himself at his son's feet and begs for mercy.  Sigismundo forgives his father in a declaration that free will trumps fate.  In typical renaissance fashion, there is a deus ex machina ending.  Sigismundo declares that Astolfo will marry Rosaura whom he jilted because she wasn't noble, Clotaldo reveals that she is his daughter and is indeed noble so the match would be acceptable.  Sigismundo then decides that he and Princess Estrella should marry.  He allows Basilio to keep his crown while he learns how to be a just ruler.

Concept
Richard Clifford, the director said in the early concept meetings that he wanted to explore the idea of astrological and astronomical devices because Basilio was so obsessed with what the stars had told him of his son's future.  As Richard was talking, I remembered seeing Tom Bliese's design for Galileo and showed it to him.  We were both inspired by it.  Bliese's design ended up being the jumping off point for my scene design of Life is a Dream.

I began researching maritime navagational equipment, such as astrolabes and sextants.  My research led me to 3 dimensional astronomical maps called orrerys as well.  As I researched, I found a very interesting, medieval astrological clock located in Prague, Czech Republic.  The clock became the most important image for me in designing this play.  I showed it to Richard and told him I wished to use the clock face as the stage floor, set it on a rake and have the different circles in it revolve.  Essentially he said, "Show me."

Execution
We decided to set the stage against the North wall of the Snow Black Box Theatre and have audience on three sides as a thrust stage.  I built a white model out of blue styrofoam to illustrate how the platforms would revolve.  Unfortunately, the white model no longer exists so I can't photograph it to show how it worked. 

There were three parts to the stage, we gave them pastry terms.  There was the doughnut around the perimeter, the smaller circle from the Prauge clock was the biscotti and the other piece was the croissant.  Originally I wanted all three pieces to revolve, which would have created some interesting engineering, by the way.  We settled for the doughnut and the biscotti to revolve with the croissant being fixed.  Since the stage was going to be raked, each time the turntables were to be moved, it would create a different world for our characters to exist in.  Our concept quickly evolved to say that because of Basilio's actions, which were intended to cheat his fate, the whole world was thrown out of whack, and finally at the end when Sigismundo has his moment of clarity and forgives his father, all the pieces of the world came back to perfect harmony. 

It took a bit of engineering to figure out the turntable within a turntable, but ultimately it worked out and was very effective.  For the ease of the actors and to facilitate the storytelling, we chose to only use one turntable at a time to increase the acting areas until the final battle which was to be the most chaotic.  Then we moved both of them.

Groundplan of the set


There was another aspect of the design which was more important during the design phase but became less important during the execution phase.  I designed an orrery to go around the stage, complete with planetoids here and there.  As this piece evolved through the process it became less and less satisfying to me for a couple of reasons.  Because we set this production in a thrust I had to scale back the orrery for sightlines.  Because of the material I suggested, ABS pipe, it was difficult to get the graceful curves in the orbits of the planets.  If I had this show to do over, I would probably cut the orrery.

The world of the prison

Basilio's palace

Back to the prison

Basilio's throneroom

The battlefield

Will triumphs over fate, the world is restored to order

A Note About the Costumes
The costumes for Life is a Dream were designed by Susan Whitfield.  Susan has been the primary costume designer at Ricks College and later Brigham Young University-Idaho for forty-one years.  This year (2012) she retires.  Over the years she has specialized in period costumes, she does them very well.  Life is a Dream was her last big period show.  I think it was her best work.  I am inspired by the fact that after forty-one years Susan is still doing her best work.  It is amazing that after all that time she is retiring at the peak of her career rather than so many who mark time and rely on tricks for the last ten years of theirs.  Susan, you will be missed.  Susan was honored with an exhibit in the Spori Gallery, Spring Semester 2012.  A photo-essay of that exhibit can be found here.

King Basilio's costume.  My favorite of Susan Whitfield's costumes, all time.
This was a very gratifying production to be involved with.  I am thankful to belong to a department that is focused not only on entertaining the masses but educating them as well.

Production Details
Directed by Richard Clifford
Scene Design by Gary Benson
Costume Design by Susan Whitfield
Lighting Design by Ray Versluys
Technical Director: Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director: Patty Randall

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