May 7, 2009

Looking for the right way to give director Ken Sawyer what he asked for in a design for a new staging of the venerable Dean and Balderston adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—“some sort of piece of art that captures the feel of the romantic era”—set designer Desma Murphy came across Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting The Nightmare. “It seemed the essence of a woman who has succumbed to a creature” she says. It became the spark from which an entire production sprang.

The Nightmare is now on view both at the Detroit Institute of the Arts where the original oil hangs, and on the stage of the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood, California, where it dominates the set of the production which has now extended its run through May 17.

Murphy didn’t just hang a print in a frame on a set wall, however. Instead, the image is the set. Windows, stairs and platforms on which the multi-locale story is played are built into a 35'-high, 20'-wide structure on which the recumbent form of the woman has been painted.

This was Murphy’s first design assignment at the NoHo, but she is the resident designer at the Road Theatre Company which performs about three blocks away in the burgeoning theatre and art community of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. She is a multiple winner of the LA Stage Alliance’s Ovation Award.

Fuseli’s painting had curtain swags behind the woman, so Murphy incorporated those swags into the set itself. “Kevin wanted a romantic, even epic love story feel rather than that of a gothic horror piece” Murphy says, “so we used a good deal of red velour, period furnishings and chandeliers, all backed by the image of that wonderful sleeping lady.”

She adds that, while it is a seduction story of blood and bodies, “there isn’t a great deal of nudity other than the opening and a touch of toplessness later on.” Fuseli’s painting included a monkey-like monster crouching above the woman. Murphy says., “It seemed like a gothic gargoyle to me, so we added gargoyles to the décor as well.”

It was an elegant solution to the challenges that all designers have when mounting a big show in this theatre which, while it has a commodious audience space, has significant constraints back stage. There are no flies and little wing space. What is more, “It is a shallow stage,” she says, “so there wasn’t much choice, it had to be a single structure.”

Not all the story locales could be accommodated by the main set with its feel of a Victorian residence. The story begins and ends aboard ship. Murphy’s solution? Sails—cloth dropped from the limited space above the headers Murphy added to hide them (and the drop-down chandeliers) create the requisite nautical moments.

While Murphy was delving more than two centuries back for a visual hook for her design, director Sawyer wanted to tap into the ability of old Hollywood musical scores for horror movies to anchor the sound of the show. As luck would have it, he happened to be working with Victor Warren, the son of classic horror score composer, the late Ronald Stein, whose works included the classic Francis Ford Coppola film Dementia 13 and Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace. Stein’s family had just struck a deal with the licensing firm Bugmusic, so Warren was able to quickly get his hands on some of the old recordings which give the production a sonic connection to the audience’s memories of old horror movies.

Sawyer says, “Sound is my thing … it’s what gets me into a show. I figure out what music I feel for a script.” Perhaps that explains why Sawyer has LA Ovation Awards for both direction and for sound. For this production they have a 13-speaker system to surround the audience with the music and effects running through a QLab show control for Macintosh OS X.

1781 Painting Inspires New Dracula Look