Sleeping Snug In Tight Spaces: Beds in Becky Shaw (and Other Plays)
Designers confronted with tiny storefront stages cheat all the time—substituting love-seats for sofas, armchairs for loungers, parson's stools for coffee tables—but a bed cannot be easily stretched or squeezed, especially when the play's significant action calls for the hotel-sized variety—a factor presenting no obstruction to the three theater companies this year replicating an array of transient lodging in spaces barely bigger than walk-in closets.
Jack Magaw's furnishings for Redtwist Theatre's Bug had the advantage of Tracy Letts' paranoid thriller occurring solely in a single-occupancy motor-court unit, allowing the bed to dominate the center of the playing space, with remaining decor surrounding it like a dust-ruffle. By contrast, the locale in Pine Box Theatre's production of Joshua Rollins' A Girl With Sun In Her Eyes shifts repeatedly from a police station to a no-tell motel. Grant Sabin's answer to packing an interrogation-desk and a bed-with-nightstand into Second Stage's 12 X 10-foot area while still permitting actors to move around these obstacles, was to make the duplex a Murphy, levering up on hinges into the wall.
Gina Gionfriddo's quirky family comedy Becky Shaw, currently playing at A Red Orchid Theatre, is a mixture of both these challenges. The hotel, designated in the text as "three-star", leads us to expect luxurious accommodations. The bed must hold two people comfortably even when they are not locked in one another's arms. All this is to be fitted onto a wide, but shallow, stage in a likewise eccentrically-shaped auditorium with audience seated barely four rows deep. Furthermore, after the first scene, the bed must be dismantled in its entirety, then carried offstage to be stored in cramped backstage quarters, never to be seen again.
"Though the seating arrangements are flexible, the typical Red Orchid configuration is a kind of trapezoid a little over 12 feet from the back wall to the front seats and about 27 feet across at its widest, tapering to 18 feet as you move downstage," says scenic designer Stephen H. Carmody, "What's really tricky is that the only way to exit the space, without walking up the aisle and out to the lobby, is a narrow hall—three feet wide, max—leading to the dressing room. This means that only one person can come on or offstage at a time."
So how is an entire bed—complete with headboard, night tables and lamps—removed in a matter of seconds in full view of the audience? Carmody grins contemplatively, "The scene change is like a choreographed dance, involving our two assistant stage managers and all of the actors, each carrying a specific item. Fortunately, we can pre-set some of the next scene behind the sliding screens."
Is that a full-sized bed? "Yes, it is. Emily Guthrie, the show's prop master, did a fantastic job of finding, buying, borrowing or making all the furniture for the show. The hotel scene is almost half an hour long, and so it's important for the actors have whatever is necessary for them to perform the scene."
What's harder to move, the headboard or the mattress? "The mattress, definitely," Carmody replies without hesitation, "The headboard is an unattached freestanding unit, but the double mattress needs two people to lift and carry it all the way offstage." He shrugs philosophically, "Everything that you see on the stage is vital to the play. We don't have the room, or the time, to do it any other way."
Becky Shaw runs through November 6.
Mary Shen Barnidge
Follow Us On Twitter