Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Arsenic and Old Lace

I have wanted to design Arsenic and Old Lace for years.  I had seen the show before and had worked as a carpenter on a production in graduate school.  This is one of those plays theatre people always want to work on.  I got my chance fall semester, 2010.

The play is set in an old Victorian mansion in the early 1940's.  The Brewster family is known for insanity.  Grandfather Brewster was a doctor and always had a corpse or two hanging around the house when he was alive.  The two Brewster aunties, Martha and Abby believe it is their Christian duty to assist tired, lonely old men into the next life.  They do so by giving him elderberry wine that is mixed with just enough arsenic to do the job.

The Brewster nephews are equally crazy.  Jonathon is a serial killer and Teddy believes he is Theodore Roosevelt.  Mortimer Brewster is the only sane one of the bunch and that is suspect as the play proceeds.  It is a grand old farce that Frank Capra made into a famous movie in 1944, starring Cary Grant.

The concept of our production was spiderwebs.  The director wanted the suggestion of spiderwebs without actually having them on the set or in the costumes.  We as the design team had to decide what that meant.  I think we were quite successful.

Arsenic and Old Lace full set shot

To execute this design, I immersed myself in books about Victorian architecture and interior design.  First of all, there is nothing conservative about Victorian design and certainly the characters in the play are eccentric.  It is absolutely appropriate in this play to design it over the top.

There were several features I wished to show in the set design for Arsenic and Old Lace.  Gothic Victorian homes often had a turret.  I wanted one of those in this design.  I can only imagine that a house like this would have a secret passage way or two.  I had to have one of those.  In the film, "Psycho", the great old Victorian home has a newell post light which is a sculpture with a light attached.  It figures into one of the murders, so I thought we ought to have one of those as well.

Jonathon and the aunties in the turret

The secret door to the cellar behind the bookcase

Newell post light

When I found out who the actor was that played Jonathon, I asked him how tall he was.  He was 6'-4" tall.  Because of that, I designed the front door to be 6'-6" tall.  He was much taller than any of the other characters, so they appeared to be in proper scale to the door.  I wanted Jonathon to fill the door when he entered for the first time so he would appear to be even more menacing.  The lighting designer lit him from the back and the effect was chilling.

Jonathon's entrance

The spiderwebs showed up all over the design.  We decided that spiderwebs are characterized by connections so I looked for things that had intersecting lines.  The windows were all small diamond shaped panes, the wallpaper all had connecting lines, there were hanging lamps all over that were very spiderlike.  I also found some reproduction Victorian trim that had the shape of webs.


There were also spiderwebs in the veining of the marble, the swags of the curtains and the doilies and antimacassars (woven pieces over the backs of chairs and couches).  There were spiderwebs everywhere.

I had a very definite plan for dressing this set as well.  Victorian homes have walls covered with photographs of family members, plants on plantstands and wall sconces.  Every square inch seems to be covered with stuff.  We went for the crazy ancestor look on the walls, and found sepia prints of Victorian people and displayed them in gaudy frames.  Three of the larger pictures were photoshopped portraits of the director, the lighting designer and me.  My face was photoshopped onto a famous portrait of Martin Van Buren.

Most of the plants we used were spiderplants.  As far as wall sconces go, we had at least eight.  I believe this is the most practical lights I have ever used on a show.  Eight wall sconces, three chandeliers and a newell post lamp.  I built several of the sconces out of lamp parts that we had in the department.

The director

The lighting designer

And me

There were a few other quirky things in the set dressing.  We built an elephant foot umbrella stand out of a piece of sono tube, foam, muslin and plastic water bottles.  It just seemed that an eccentric man like Grandfather Brewster would have one of them.

Teddy often talked about his safari in Africa, and I imagined that his aunts gave him a BB gun and he took care of rodents and other varmints in the yard.  In the areas associated with Teddy, I put a stuffed squirrel, a raven and two taxidermied racoons.  I imagined that he thought they were lions and tigers and other game that Theodore Roosevelt had killed on his safari to Africa.

Elephant foot umbrella stand
This was a delightful show, and a very detailed production.  It was a pleasure to work on and I'm glad I had the opportunity to do so.


Shaela said...

Awesome set. LOVE the play and I so wish I could have helped out - it looks like it was a blast!

vwerner57 said...

Great set. We have a much smaller stage, but I have got much inspiration from this set. Would like more information on how to build the elephant foot umbrella stand.

Will try to find another way to contact you.