Sweeney Todd: The Bloodless Barber of Fleet Street
Sweeney Todd calls its protagonist "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"—a fitting sobriquet for the crazed Victorian haircutter who murdered the customers in his chair and delivered their corpses to the pastry shop downstairs to be made into pies (the original "mystery meat"). So what you need to stage this Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler pop-opera is lots of blood—right?
Hold the hemostats, however! Unlike movies, where body fluids only have to be applied once, stage blood presents a number of problems. For one, the volume required for eight shows a week over a two-month run is expensive. For another, it renders the floor slippery when wet, sticky when dry, and the dye is nearly impossible to launder out of clothes. Finally, when viewed in a big auditorium, it can barely be seen from more than six rows back.
Does it come as any surprise, then, that Drury Lane Theatre decided to forgo gallons of gore and all the headaches that come with it? In the production currently running in Oak Brook, when Gregg Edelman, our Sweeney, dispatches his hapless clients, we first see them struggle, then the background is suddenly flooded by a video-projection of dripping red liquid. Our imaginations make the connection.
"The main reason for not using fake blood," insists artistic director William Osetek, "was that it's been done too many times before. After a few times, it's hard to keep the throat-cutting from coming off as comic instead of scary. Oh, and it's a nightmare for costumes. What we wanted to do was to reinvent the blood-letting."
The bakery products are likewise made of minimal-stain materials (the "pies" are cheesecloth and styrofoam), but the script also calls for straight-razor shaves, gunshots, victims falling through trap-doors. Why, then, is there no violence choreographer credited in the playbill? Because director Rachel Rockwell, in addition to her seemingly magic touch with musicals, is trained in stage combat, having studied it at the University of Evansville and worked closely with fight directors Robin McFarquhar and John Tover. ("The basics of combat," explains Rockwell, "are a lot like the physics of dance.")
"The period barber's instruments for Edelman and George Keating, the latter of whom plays rival barber Pirelli," continues Osetek, "were ordered by property designer Joel Lambie from various places for them to rehearse with until they were comfortable handling them, and the gunshot is not done live, but with a taped sound cue. It's much safer—not to mention more dependable—than a blank cartridge."
That leaves the infamous chair with the seat that ejects its occupants through a precariously small opening in the floor to land unseen some 12 feet below. The playbill claims that Drury Lane's was "engineered" by Chicago Flyhouse, but don't go mistaking it for a pre-fab rental. "No, we own it," Osetek declares proudly, "Flyhouse built the chair based on consultation with Kevin Depinet. Edelman controls the mechanism—he pushes the lever forward to open the trap, and then back again to release the seat. But only after making sure that the person in it is ready to drop and land safely!"
Sweeney Todd runs at the Drury Lane Theatre through October 9.
Mary Shen Barnidge
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