Stage Designs of Richard Finkelstein

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Richard Finkelstein
630 Stonewall Dr
Harrisonburg, VA 22801
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Moliere's The Miser - Scenic Design by R. Finkelstein

What a fun production this was for the 1996 season of The Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Director John Dennis' charge at the initial design meeting: "Norma Desmond has a neighbor". Set in Hollywood in the 1930s, in this edition, the guy is SOOOOO cheap he puts Jack Benny to shame. He has already sold all but two pieces of furniture. In fact as legs break off the chair during the play, they too are sold leaving a chair to function perfectly on only a single leg (not an easy task to accomplish!). Pictured first is a photo of the model, followed by a production photo followed by a shot of the designer trying out the one legged stool.

The Miser by Moliere



This production was designed for The Colorado Shakespeare Festival in the same season as The Merchant of Venice. Unlike Merchant, this was designed for the indoor theatre. The Baton Rouge-based director, was John Dennis. This was the most fun time I have ever had working with a director (and fellow designer, Liz Covey - costumes).

Description of the Settings:

Depicted on the stage was a mansion like those to be found in Palm Beach. In this case, though, the mansion was under great disrepair and even corruption. Vines had long ago penetrated from the garden, grown into the space, and then died. There was a grand curved staircase and a marble floor, cracked and warn.

There was also a chandelier as well as a newel post light at the foot of the stairs. These too were in disrepair. Closer inspection revealed wires strung to these fixtures from a bicycle-like contraption up-stage. Could this be a Gilligan’s Island style pedal generator?

The only furniture in view was a single chair and a chaise (see the production photos). Also in the stage picture was a suit of armor, standing by the archway under the steps.

The house curtain was used in this production, as it was very important for some stylistic choices we made in production (see below). The entire picture was further framed in by a bronze-like Art Deco portal.

The set proper consisted of a series of walls, french windows, archways, a colonnade, beams overhead, and cobwebs. Decorating the walls were a series of animal heads, decayed by years of neglect.


Conceptual Foundations:

Discussion of concept began with a brash quip from the director, John Dennis:

"In this production we show that....Norma Desmond has a neighbor..."

His tone of voice was quite sarcastic and we all understood immediately his point. There are those who are born of society, and those who aspire to it without a clue as to what life at any level is about. In Moliere’s text, social conventions are turned on their head. In this edition this is quite magnified.

John Dennis had suggested the Hollywood of Sunset Boulevard as our backdrop. He wanted to find a parallel in a society where pretense became everything, where even homes themselves were some sort of theatre set, a facade of life rather than anything real or anything to be taken seriously. The Director also came to the discussions with a

plan to make liberal reference in the characterizations to various comedia Hollywood actor types. We had a Tarzan entrance, swinging across the stage from the top of the stairs on a vine. One of the characters too was patterned after Chico Marx.

The spirit of Jack Benny was also important for the director. Mr. Dennis particularly noted his lovability intertwined with his absolute miserly qualities (in character at least). Benny’s character would go to infinite, almost improbable lengths to save even a penny. Dennis proposed that we even duplicate Benny’s basement vault guarded by alligators (we did).

One thing I greatly admired about working with John Dennis was the way, as a director, he would set a course, but then allow his collaborators to run with it. For instance, the director thought it would be a nice idea for things to be in such decay that when a piece of the set would break off, Harpagon would simply affix a price tag to it for some future sale.

Often my role in the directorial proposals was to take the basic ideas and then to test the limits of how far we could go. The director’s idea of affixing price tags made me think of the scenic circumstances set out in Moliere’s text. Moliere calls for furniture and boxes to be assembled in the grand hall for some sale. Our Harpagon though, with a character taken to extreme, would have sold all his furniture long ago. This is what reduces him to selling pieces of the set, broken chair legs, etc. What is especially fun is that Harpagon is so driven by his miserliness that he doesn’t even act as though his decor is unusual.

I proposed going even farther yet, and this allowed for a nice fusion between all of the design elements. The idea for the generator, for instance, I believe was mine. If he is so int saving every penny, our Harpagon would certainly not be above "theft of services". The device of a pedaled generator made for some very funny blocking, pacing, and lighting opportunities. The director chose certain key moments in the show. At these points, the lights would suffer a "brown out" until the servant, or in a pinch Harpagon himself would pedal his way into the light.

The first time this device was used was especially interesting. At first the audience thought it was a lighting mistake. Revelation that the strange contraption upstage was a generator, thus became that much more fun.

If Harpagon was such a complete miser in our version, why then would he have multiple servants as Moliere had written. In a stroke of collaborative inspiration we all agreed to a scheme whereby one actor would play all of the servant roles, especially that of the chauffeur and the cook. The director and costume designer then set out to find the perfect Hollywood archetype for these two characters. They chose to portray a German chauffeur (with a Duesenberg of course) and a French Chief. The actor playing the dual roles was then required to shave his head. This allowed for a most remarkable lazy-susan type hat device. Half the hat was that of a chauffer, the other being that of a chef. This mode of presentation became very funny and was especially entertaining during scenes requiring arguments between the chef and the chauffeur!

More evidence of the collaborative process allowing us to test the extremes came with the director asking if the chair could have a leg break off (Harpagon would put a sales sticker on this too). The director thought it would be both fun and revealing when Harpagon would then sit on the three legged chair.

Here too, I used the director’s idea to postulate the end projection of the theory: What if more than one leg could break off? What if three legs broke off, and what if Harpagon could sit just as soundly on a one legged chair as an ordinary mortal could on a 4-legged chair? Our Harpagon weiged over 200 pounds so it took some special steel alloy and welding to realize the trick but the effect was quite rewarding. In the last production photo presented here, you can faintly see the chair in its one legged configuration, down stage left.

While we pushed the limits through our visual commentary, the director was careful to pace the gimmics and to ration them well. In this way, each time, these came as an absolute surprise to the audience, thinking they had already seen the limits of this character’s potential for buffoonery.

After the director gave us our "Norma Desmond" marching orders, I looked hard for visual research related to Palm Springs. While I found some photos of the homes of stars, the few I found were mostly bad modern restorations. I came across, though, a vary high-end Abrams publisher book dealing with the architecture of Palm Beach. I always confused these two "Palm" cities in my mind and was further confused when I first looked at the book. The architecture between the two cities looked similar to me. As it turns out this was one of those very happy accidents in the work of a designer.

Palm Beach in Florida, at least as we think of it, was founded architecturally, by Hollywood’s mega-stars trying to escape from the now crowded Palm Springs in California. More interesting, especially to our production and to theatre in general, the prime architect of the look of the homes in both locations was from Joseph Urban. While I was very familiar with the pioneering stage design work of Mr. Urban, I had been unaware that he was also an architect. The stars would see his work on the stage and would then commission him to design their homes. It is thus no accident that the homes read almost more as sets in some fantasy life than as home as us non-stars would know them. The whole concept of pretense in the way we live as well as delusion and self-delusion was thus ensconced within this mode of architecture itself.

I have of course seen thousands of shows in my lifetime and have worked directly on hundreds. Yet I cannot think of any that had a more fun or striking opening moment than that of this production, as orchestrated by John Dennis, the director. Within the first few moments he jerked the audience, almost physically from their seats, as though they were in some Disney flight simulator ride - All the more surprising in a staid classical comedy such as this one. Again, this moment demonstrates a synergy between directorial vision, physical action, and other design elements, particularly in the arena of scenery, props, effects, and sound.

When the audience entered the theatre, they saw a very traditional intimate proscenium theatre with warm tones. There was a maroon velour curtain lit with traditional red curtain warmers. The curtain was framed by the bronze portal. Preshow sound was overly-traditional music one would expect of a generic Moliere show. I could imagine that many audience members by this time would have been thinking: "finally CSF is doing a classic TRADITIONALLY!"

As in such "traditional" fare the house lights dim, the curtain goes dark, the sound fades, as the audience hunkers down for yet another classical performance. Instantly though, the audience, with the opening of the curtain, is jarred into an environment totally at odds with expectation. Smoke billows from the stage into the audience. The stage itself is bathed in eerie stormy light. It’s as though we are in some sort of Gothic melodrama, in the bogs around Scotland. The music in an instant transition with the curtain is loud, brash, stormy, and indeed is interspersed with the sounds of a storm. "Wait, are we in the right theatre? Is this Moliere, or Dracula....and what would Dracula have to do with Moliere?" the audience must at an instant wonder.

Then, from within the fog, at the top of the steps, enters a shadowy character clutching a box as though his life depended on it. He is clearly agitated, perhaps even paranoid as he moves down the rocks - or are they stairs - hard to tell in the fog. He makes his way down stage. From out of the fog he lifts a trap door and the audience is treated to a snapping alligator right in their faces.

The figure descends from view, the trap door slams loudly, and an instant, a count of zero, the world reverts back to the world of Moliere. The fog is gone, the lights are bright, the music is a twinkling ditty, as the young lovers enter wearing summer clothes of pastel colors, while they hold their tennis rackets. Clearly, this is to be an evening FULL of surprises. It was, and it was a joy to work on.