a theatre, film & pop culture review
Inspired lighting design can entirely transform the tone and meaning of a production, and when it’s done exceptionally well it’s just plain orgasmic — at least for this gal. Luckily for me, my favorite LD made a fantastic double-showing this season.
Neil Austin’s lighting designs are brilliantly consistent in their insight and beauty, but his work on Hamlet, the Jude Law vehicle imported from London, is especially striking. While the more than competent Law tended to over-think his character’s moral and mental dilemmas, Austin smartly illuminated the young prince’s loneliness, coolly isolating him with tunnels of white light. For Red, Austin ushered audiences into the dark, swirling mind of Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, surrounding the painter and his protegee in dark shadows and warm hues both disturbing and strangely comforting. Noteworthy is the fact that Austin was aided by the same creative team for both shows: the strikingly simple work of set and costume designer, Christopher Oram (Best Scenic Design nominee, Red), strong direction of Michael Grandage (Best Direction nominee, Red) and sound design of Adam Cork (Best Sound Design nominee for Red and Enron). (Notably, Austin and Oram both designed the 2007 London production of the musical Parade. Check out all all of Austin’s work here). This creative team consistently produces some of the most exquisitely intelligent and cohesive work in theatre today, and for the most part, New York audiences and critics alike seem to welcome this particular British team with open arms (the same cannot be said for team behind Enron). While both of Austin’s Broadway showings this season are equally deserving, Red is the critical darling, and so will more than likely take the Tony.
As for the other two nominees: Henderson’s hard-working design is befitting of Enron‘s delightfully over-the-top aesthetic with its flashing neons, red-hued warnings, and accusatory pools of white light. On the other hand, MacDevitt‘s work on Fences is of the more practical variety, quietly working throughout most of the production, but once or twice devolving into obviousness (Troy Mason’s monologue against death prompted a swift darkening of all but Washington’s form).
The nominees here are not quite as thrilling as those for the Best Lighting Design of a Play. None dramatically stood out from the rest, so this is a loose ordering that in my mind could easily be switched around. Because of this, I’ve chosen the subtlest of the bunch, as well as the most clever and unobtrusive. Where American Idiot‘s ’90s grunge translates to the dim, smoky lighting, and Fela!‘s rainbowed gels rival the vibrance of the loudly-patterned African-styled costumes, both designs became distracting, constantly altering between flashing colors, dark shadows, and endless follow spots. Adams and Wierzel’s designs appear more suited for Green Day and Fela Kuti concerts than for the stories being told (admittedly the books of both shows are muddled, if not practically non-existent). Holder’s rich use of shadow and light more practically highlighted those same characteristics in the complex history being told in Ragtime, but for my money, Richings most aptly straddled the line between practicality and artistry in La Cage aux Folles, infusing tongue-in-cheek humor and buoyancy into what could have been a static and predictable cabaret lighting of one spotlight after another.