Night Witches – Acting Blogpost

Part I: In the world of “Night Witches” (originally by Alicia Crosby, Vanita Kalra, Riva Rubenoff and Sara Vanasse (along with additional contributions from the cast of this production at Stephens College)), war is hell in more ways than one. Brave and patriotic women fight to be able to serve their country as the fighting in World War II begins to reach it’s boiling point. But, cultural sexism in their homeland of Mother Russia threatens to keep them grounded for the war. Unfortunately for their detractors as well as the German military forces, these pilots prove that they can cause a little hell if given the opportunity.

13 actors make up the cast for Stephens College’s production of “Night Witches.” However, since 21 unique roles are called for in the show, certain actors are called upon to take on numerous roles in the performance. This was no problem for the Stephens College performers as they were able to convincingly portray multiple roles with a high degree of verisimilitude. One actor who was able to do so particularly well was Taneal Williams, who played Mother as well as Raskova, the military commander for the pilots. Mother and Young Anna (Hannah Elliott) are the first characters that the audience sees onstage after a prolonged moment of darkness and thunder to begin the show. Mother and Young Anna appear in a bed together wearing night gowns as Mother tries to calm Young Anna down during the crashing thunder of the night. Williams is able to coddle and protect Young Anna in a very loving and nurturing kind of way as she tells a story of the “Seven Sisters” star constellation. Later in the show, Williams returns to rile up the troops and instill in them the importance of their duties as Commander Raskova. Clad in a brown general’s hat with a brown military uniform and combat boots, Raskova appears as a practical opposite of the way Williams portrayed Mother earlier in the performance. Raskova’s straight posture, booming projectile voice and stern icy stare resonates power and control even in the furthest seats in the theatre. In one instance, Vera (Madilynn Mansur) and Anna (Delainey Phillips) try to explain to Raskova that the engine in Anna’s plane is malfunctioning and won’t be fit for take-off just yet. With charging German forces approaching, Raskova declares with conviction that no plane will be left for the enemy to secure and that Anna needs to figure out her situation fast. The message is made loud and clear to Vera and Anna as Raskova departs off-stage in a soldier’s gait.

War may be a very brutal, tiring and at times delicate subject to handle within a performance. But with war comes the human element and spirit: Comradery, fighting for someone you love back home, persevering in even the darkest of conditions and situations. One actor whose performance offered many levels of human spirit and emotion was Dalton Mobley, who played Peter and a German soldier seen later in the show. The audience is first introduced to Peter and Vera in the second scene of the performance, showcasing their first meeting and then ensuing relationship before Peter is called off to fight in the war. During their meeting, Peter and Vera speak sparingly as their movements and motions act as an interpretive dance to describe their encounter (which is helped considerably by Elliott and Catera Combs, who act as Vera and Peter’s Mimuer’s respectively to help the scene flow). Before he opens his mouth and finally speaks for the first time in the scene, Peter, sitting cross-legged immediately beside Vera, looks flustered and anxious. His eyes dart back and forth and his outstretched hand moves closer to Vera as his face shows his mind appearing to be going a million miles per hour. His mouth opens because he wants to say something to her, but he quickly traps it shut without any words escaping. In this sequence, Mobley is able to convincingly portray Peter as being smitten with Vera after just a few moments on stage together. Later in the performance, the close dynamic between Vera and Peter is brought to an abrupt and rather sad halt after Vera receives a letter. The letter details Peter’s death by the hands of German soldiers in the line of battle, which tears up Vera as she throws down the letter, overcome with sadness and disgust. As Vera reads the letter silently to herself in front of the stage near stage left, Peter is seen far behind her near stage right, acting out the contents of the letter for the audience to see. Peter is seen attacked, shot and beaten to a point where he can only crawl forward. His motion forward moves him from his original spot near stage right to the middle of the center of the stage, signifying his resistance to the attacks and persistence to carry on. Unfortunately, he is overcome by German troops and offers a courageous stand, back on two feet, before meeting a final fatal shot and dropping dead on the stage. In this heart-wrenching and tense moment, Mobley is able to fight to the very end in a convincing fashion.

Part II: The actors “take to the skies” themselves to convincingly demonstrate a bombing run during the performance. In front of a sky blue backdrop aided by convincing slide whistle sound effects off-stage, each pilot choreographs her bombing run in cyclical circular motion with the others. One takes the lead in front of the other four, slowly crouching in place while offering a personal war cry before rotating back in formation as her target is decimated.

Mothers and Sons – Costume Design and Lighting Design Blogpost

Part I: In Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons,” a cold winter’s day in New York City soon becomes heated inside the Central Park West apartment of Cal Porter (played by Adam Brietzke) and Will Ogden (Dakota McWhorter). The unannounced arrival of Katharine Gerard (Alana Barragán-Scott), the mother of Cal’s passed lover Andre, brings words and feelings that may have been better left unsaid to the light. The times may have changed since Andre’s passing 20 years ago, but tensions have remained as high-strung as ever.

The characters are dressed in very contemporary garb much like any person you would see walking down the street during the winter. Winter hats, sweaters and fur coats are all items you could see in downtown New York City and the performance accurately reflects that throughout the course of the show. But, the clothing worn by each character can be interpreted another level deeper as a representation of their personality and character portrayed onstage. For example, Katharine Gerard first appears wearing a heavy fur coat (to endure the chilly temperatures outside) on top of her bright, blood red dress. Cal takes her coat after the two have an intense exchange about Andre and whether he was gay before he came to New York. In a sense, this can be viewed as an opening of Gerard’s emotions and a removal of a “layer” of pent-up anger, frustration, inquisitiveness and all-around emotion revolving around her life in the past twenty years between her husband’s recent passing as well as her own questions about her son’s life and death, which slowly start to emerge as the performance progresses. Later on, Katharine heads to the “little girl’s room” as Cal and Will begin a back-and-forth about Cal’s past in the form of Katharine showing up in their living room. Will criticizes Cal for building up Katharine as one of the worst people to ever exist in the past, but welcoming her into their home with open-armed hospitality. This line packs a double-punch when taking the blue dress shirt Cal is wearing into consideration, as the more calming, relaxing color (especially opposite Gerard’s intense red) complements his friendly disposition.

The two main sources of lighting on the stage comes from two lamps on each side of the living room. One stands on top of a cabinet next to some liquor bottles and the other is across the living room standing on an end-table in-between doorways to the kitchen and the foyer by the front door. At the very far corner of the front of the stage near stage left is a little artificial fireplace. While the two lamps provide an adequate amount of light while additionally serving as stationary props, theatre lights shine down for the entirety of the performance without any change in color or illumination. That being said, the lighting design (designed by Rachel Keith, who also serves as board operator for the show) is able to subtly compose the mood of the play as well as the weather outside in the performance. For instance, the play opens under a broad and dark blue guise of darkness with Cal and Katharine staring out of the apartment window, looking toward the audience as the stage lights come on. From this opening as well as the ensuing conversation of sights from the apartment, we as the audience can gather that it is a “blustery and cold winter’s day” according to the time of the play’s program. It is not spectacularly illuminated like that of a creeping sun, but very artificial-like, possibly indicating clouds or darker weather surrounding the area of the apartment. This is further documented only a few minutes later as Katharine comments on the heat of the room after a heated conversation with Cal about Andre. In particular, she notes the artificial fireplace in the corner of the living room. Although it only appears to give off a glimmer of light from the audience’s perspective, it’s appearance in the play fits with the time of the year. Meaning, it makes sense that a fireplace (while although artificial) is on and gives off heat in the middle of winter in this simmering apartment. 

Part II: Opposing each other from across Porter and Ogden’s living room, Gerard and Porter appear as total opposites in personality, convictions and sense of purpose in life. This is highlighted by their choice in wardrobe during the entirety of the show. Gerard wears a red dress that alludes to her bubbling anger about to boil over. In contrast is Porter’s blue dress shirt, a more relaxed color to match his kind, amiable demeanor.

Once – Lighting Design and Set Design Blogpost

In the world of “Once”, heart, soul, destiny and music come together. A down-on-his-luck street musician (played by Sam Cieri) meets a girl, (Mackenzie Lesser-Roy) who’s always serious and gets him back on his feet. Although many characters have different interests, agendas, professions and degrees of likability, they can all come together as one through music (originally written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová for the 2007 film written and directed by John Carney).

Since the main set for the show does not change outside of a few chairs, tables or musical instruments (more on that in the next paragraph), the lighting during certain scenes helps to focus the attention of the audience on certain areas of the stage while creating a new sense of setting on stage in the presence of a stationary set. In one of the first scenes of the first act, the guy brings the girl and her broken vacuum back to his father’s (Bristol Pomeroy) repair shop. In quick transition from the previous scene, the stage lighting goes black except for two, square-shaped spotlights shining down on the guy repairing the vacuum in one and the girl sitting with the guy’s dad in another. The guy has little vocalization beyond groans and noises in fixing the vacuum, but the awkward conversation between the girl and the father becomes the comedic center of the play for the audience under the spotlights. Another instance of attention-focusing lighting came during the second act of the performance. The guy and the girl ascend to the roof of the music shop after a long day of rehearsal. To give the impression of the darkness of night, the stage goes completely dark outside of a dark blue hue behind the set upon the backdrop and a string of yellow “Christmas lights” on the floor of the set to give the impression of the lights of a city from far away, creating a convincing and intimate atmosphere while keeping the attention of the audience on the actors near the top of the stage. In addition, the lights are subdued enough that they do not draw all attention away from the guy and girl with their dark figures standing out in front of the dark blue light.

Over the course of the two acts, the main pieces of the set do not move or change outside of lighting. But, the scenes in the play are wisely constructed to give the audience a different impression of the location, even though the main set behind the actors has not changed throughout the performance. The main setting appears as a barroom, complete with bottles, back mirror, swinging wooden bar doors with windows along with pictures in frames adorning the walls. In addition, there are a number of incandescent light bulbs on the walls that appear lighter or duller depending on the amount of light needed for the scene on stage. Members of the ensemble cast spend part of their time of the play up against the walls in chairs that can be moved freely when needed in the spotlight and then moved back when a musician needs a seat for another background musical number. There is a floor, that is meant to resemble tile-laminate, built for the set placed on top of the stage floor, giving the audience an almost convincing look at what could be a regular, stereotypical bar in Ireland, although the performance as a whole spends little time inside a bar or nightclub. Near the end of the first act, the girl and guy go to a bar in town that has an “open mic” night. Many of the musicians and ensemble cast are sitting in the middle of the set floor, their backs to the audience and instruments in hand, toward the “stage” (the bar counter) to give the impression that they themselves are an audience for the “open mic” night. With chairs placed about three feet away from each other in three rows, the ensemble is able to convincingly portray that the guy (about to be duped by the girl into singing in front of the crowd against his wishes) is playing in front of a vocal and intimidating audience of strangers. Another instance of giving an impression of different location comes during the first act when the girl brings the guy to her home to meet her family. Three multi-colored tables are laid end-to-end in a diagonal line to give the audience an open view of the girl’s family while giving the impression that the audience is in a new area than before, despite the bar room set still standing behind the tables and actors.

Part Two: With a set that stays stagnant throughout both acts, the lighting design by Natasha Katz adds mood and different senses of place throughout the show. During a touching reprise of “Gold” in the second act, the stage and background are immersed in a ray of the aforementioned color, basking the cast the shining light like a coastal sunset.

Death of a Salesman – Set Design and Projection Design Blogpost

In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a “liked” man named Willy Loman (played by Michael Bayler for the MU Theater Department’s 2016 revival) is nearing the end of his rope. He has spent over half of his existence trying to “sell, sell, sell,” but he can’t help but think he missed a great deal. He often thinks back to his brother Ben (Aaron Scully), connoisseur of worldly adventure, and when his brother said yes to a deal the “liked” man said no to. He also thinks back to glory days of his kids Biff Loman (Samuel DeMuria) and Harold “Happy” Loman (Jacob Smith) before they each wonder, in the present moment, “where did we go wrong?”

 

The majority of Death of a Salesman takes place within the confines of the Loman household in Brooklyn, New York. On stage, three specific rooms of the house are presented in view of the audience: The bedroom of Willy and his wife Linda Loman (Jennie Pardoe), Biff and Happy’s bedroom, as well as the kitchen. Stage left of the kitchen is an open doorway, meant to represent the front door of the house. Biff and Happy’s room is built above and behind the kitchen on stage to give an impression that it is “upstairs” and “above the kitchen.” Between the kitchen and doorway, there is a small staircase to complete this image. On stage right sits the front end of Willy’s car, distant from the bedrooms and the kitchen. Behind it is two chairs (meant to represent the front seats of the car) and a back storage area (meant to represent the trunk.) In such a confined space, the scenic design (led by Brad M. Carlson for the production) helps create a space on stage that fills the area and gives a convincing impression of a 1940s apartment in Brooklyn. In one of the first scenes of the show, Happy and Biff are awakened by their parents in the middle of the night, especially Willy’s loud external monologues. Happy and Biff each listen in from their bedroom at the top of the stairwell. Biff and Happy stir awake and begin conversing with each other about now, the future and glory days in the past. Despite being ten feet away by estimation, both the actors and the set are able to create a convincing space on stage. For another scene in the first act, the actors make use of the front of the stage to draw the audience’s attention toward them and not to the set behind them. During a flashback in Willy’s mind, the Loman family as well as Biff and Happy’s neighbor Bernard (Emmanuel Llorente) act out a moment from right before Biff was set to graduate high school. For example, Happy goes to the back of the car (which hasn’t moved through transition from reality to flashback) to retrieve the punching bag Willy got for him and Biff. Also, when Biff has to call out to his friends in the cellar waiting for him, he runs to stage right to yell off-stage towards his friends, making use of the limited space available to him.

 

The play opens with Willy coming home late at night after a business trip with Linda asking him how it went. Behind the stage are black and white projections of New York City brownstone apartments and streets. Given the context of the play, they add an antiquated aura and historical sense-of-place to the events on stage. But when the play dives into Willy’s thoughts as well as flashbacks to the past, the projections on the screens change to signify this difference. The black and white images slowly fade into close-up images of green leaves and branches, possibly signifying a safe forest in the refuge of Willy’s mind. One of the most prominent instances of this is when the audience witnesses the first flashback inside Willy’s mind, when he returns home from a previous business trip and Happy and Biff have just finished washing his car. The comforting forest behind the actor’s seems to capitalize on setting the mood that this is a happy time in Willy’s life, a time he wishes he could go back to.

 

With Willy’s (Bayler) fragile mental state comes the problem of portraying flashbacks on-stage in-between scenes occurring in the present time. Scenic and projection design led by Brad M. Carlson wisely sets apart these moments using large projection screens behind the set. Willy would begin a soliloquy of spoken thoughts as the projection would change behind him from New York City brownstone buildings to serene, bright green leaves as a flashback is acted out on stage.