So here we are, the third and final part (for now) of my “Adventures on Broadway” series.

Hopefully you’re all rested up from my monstrous post about South Pacific. Today’s topic will be a little more focused, and hopefully a bit shorter. So with that in mind, let’s get right to it.

August: Osage County

Straight from Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company, August: Osage County is a Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play by Tracy Letts. It tells the story of a dysfunctional family in rural Oklahoma, and the secrets they are keeping from each other. The play itself is absolutely brilliant, and without a doubt one of the most exciting new plays in years. It was actually my first time seeing a play on Broadway, and it was an excellent first. Let’s look at the design though…

The Weston home in August: Osage County

The Weston home in August: Osage County

From another viewpoint - the dollhouse qualities shine through.

From another viewpoint - the dollhouse qualities shine through.

The set is a relatively straightforward gothic-style two story (plus attic) home. It was described by a reviewer as being almost haunted house-like in design, and that’s definitely a quality that shines through (with a lot of help from the lighting). Whether intentional or not, the house has an imposing quality, and being seated below in the orchestra certainly helped convey the sense that the house is larger than life. I also saw the house as a doll house, with its open face and the people appearing in relatively small scale to this massive structure. This almost implies a voyeuristic quality to the play: this family’s house has been ripped open and their deepest secrets are being exposed to us.

Unfortunately it’s tough to find pictures of a lot of August: Osage County’s finer lighting moments, so you’ll have to bear with me as I describe in text!

As I already alluded to, the lighting plays a huge role in the house’s cycle from dark and lonely in to full of life (positive or negative as that may be) and then back to dark and lonely. A plot point requires all the windows to be covered, so the interior of the house remains relatively dark for the opening of the play. Ann G. Wrightson starts by isolating the lighting, and focusing only on individual sections of the house, allowing light to creep around corners or through entryways. All the while, it remains relatively naturalistic – it doesn’t seem like overly stylized or forced creepiness – but it has a haunted quality that’s key. When Violet Weston stumbles in and makes her first appearance on the landing, the lighting slowly creeps in to greet her – it’s a subtle and relatively simple effect but without a doubt one of my favorite cues in the show.

One element of the lighting design that was interesting was the use of top hats. Every single light in the house had a full top hat, and many of the lights behind the proscenium had either full or half top hats. Perhaps Ms. Wrightson read our post about the top hat (or maybe she is just plain smart)? Either way, I thought that showed a focus on keeping the design clean and focused, in spite of the gritty show on stage.

Something about sound

I don’t usually talk about sound design here, because I’m definitely no sound designer, but I thought this show merited an exception. Perhaps it’s because I’m used to big musicals where amplification is the name of the game, but I found this show to be refreshing in the sense that, for awhile, I almost thought there were no microphones at all.

Of course, it turned out they actually had a few lav mics inset into the front of the deck (presumably for reinforcement) but even with just those mics I could still hear fine (maybe a little better since I didn’t have to process slightly grainy amped speech) and had no problem understanding the show. I know it’s generally not common for plays to put body mics to use (we don’t at UB if I’m not mistaken) but seeing/hearing the same thing on Broadway was definitely a good experience.

Also, they used Qlab for their music playback. It’s always cool to know that you and the pros are on the same page, software-wise!

You can dress it up, but…

Really, no ifs, ands, or buts about it – the set dressing and detail work was the best I’ve seen. Much like South Pacific (see my post about it!) the detail was quite clearly a huge consideration when designing the set.

Set dressing - very intricate

Set dressing - very intricate

During intermissions I ventured up to the edge of the stage and took a closer look, where I was able to get a better view of all the various set dressing elements, props, and other things hanging around and making this house look lived in. Books were strewn about. magazines were stacked high – it was all very real. The mess seemed to be a reflection of the deep depression and resulting neglect for the household. It was a beautiful messy chaos.

Similar detail was evident in the painting and the detail of the actual constructed elements. Looking into doorways and into areas which are very difficult to see in from most of the audience, I was constantly noticing (intentionally) chipping paint, or a crack in a wall, or a bit of discoloration. Again – the house appeared lived in, uncared for, almost forgotten. Perhaps a metaphor for some characters in this play.

Notice the split floor, as well as the detailed set painting/wear-n-tear

Notice the split floor, as well as the detailed set painting/wear-n-tear

Being at the edge of the stage also tipped me off to another interesting element of the design – the stage deck actually appeared to be sliced down the middle where rooms were supposed to be divided. Being in the orchestra, that wasn’t easily clear from my seat, but I imagine it was a good effect in the mezzanine (and probably helped keep the actors from ‘walking through walls’). I am particularly curious how it was accomplished – it seemed almost like the deck was built up and out to accomplish this effect, although that’s purely conjecture. Having seen many plays at Buffalo’s own Irish Classical try to accomplish splitting up rooms in interesting ways (particularly tough when you’re in the round) I thought this method was a particularly cool way, although it really only works if you’re seated looking down on the deck.

Mr. Rosenthal and Ms. Wrightson were incredibly smart in the way their designs worked off each other’s strengths. As is usually the case, the more unified designs seem to be the stronger designs, and that was not proven wrong here. The lighting exposed the decay in the home (on the home itself and of the people within it). The set enabled the haunted look that the lighting ventured toward, without making it seem cartoony or unrealistic.

The famed 'dinner scene' from August: Osage County

The famed 'dinner scene' from August: Osage County

Unfortunately, the play has closed, but it will be beginning a national tour shortly. If it comes near you, be sure to check it out. The design alone is great, but the play is absolutely thrilling and moving. Definitely worth seeing!

The Details

August: Osage County at the Music Box Theatre
By Tracy Letts

Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Scenic Design by Todd A. Rosenthal
Lighting Design by Ann G. Wrightson
Costume Design by Ana Kuzmanic
Sound Design by Richard Woodbury

Closed as of 28 June 2009.