Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet designers bring life to dreams

posted by Molly MacLagan, Literary and Dramaturgy Intern

In Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, the title character’s friend, Osha, asks him “Marcus, what’s the secret?”  He answers “Ain’t no secret.  I’m just dreaming.”  The questions that follow are telling.  “Like sweet dreams?” Osha asks.  “Or beautiful nightmares?” his friend Shaunta wants to know.  Dreams provide the background for the lyrical and poetic world through which Marcus must journey to learn about his father and, more significantly, about himself in McCraney’s coming of age and coming out tale, set in the projects of the fictional town of San Pere, Louisiana and the surrounding bayou.  The world the playwright created requires some innovative thinking from the set and lighting designers who have the hard job of making a dream world out of reality.  When asked what instruction he gave designers, director Robert O’Hara says he told them “It’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the bayou.  This is a mystical dream world.  But Marcus’s dream is a nightmare.”  Scenic designer Tony Ferrieri and lighting designer Andy Ostrowski took that idea and ran with it.  Both tried to incorporate a feel of mystery and magic (and sometimes a little something sinister) to exemplify the journey Marcus is making, resulting in the sense that one never knows what could be lurking just beneath the surface. 

Ferrieri strove for that sense of secrecy when using water in his set design.  Four pools of water dot the stage, separated by winding boardwalks that twist around each other before disappearing offstage or becoming part of other set pieces.  The pools are deliberately lined in black to obscure the depth of it.  To look at it, one can’t tell whether the water is one foot deep or nine feet deep, and that’s the way Ferrieri wants it – the darkness and depth of the water suggest the depth of the issues with which Marcus and other characters in the play wrestle.  Of course, the water presents practical problems, as well.  The weight could be an issue, but that doesn’t worry Ferrieri.  Laughing, he says “I’m just praying nothing leaks!”  The pools of water are right over the Gordon Lounge, but all the precautions have been taken and he doesn’t foresee any problems.  “We [the scenic crew] have been really careful to keep things like screws out of the pools.  We don’t even wear shoes around them so we won’t puncture the lining.”  That lining has created some challenges for Ostrowski’s lighting design, too.  He asks, “Do you know why the Caribbean looks so blue?  It’s not the water, it’s all the life that’s beneath the surface.”  Lighting water is as much about lighting what is in or behind the water as it is about lighting the surface of the water.  Ostrowski had to find a way to light the water without depriving it of its mystery. 

In addition, Ostrowski worked with his team to create a device that keeps the water moving.  “Moving, moving, moving,” he smiles at the thought.  “Always moving.”  The movement is appropriate, since there’s nothing calm about the upheaval in Marcus’s life.  Another way the designers have created a sense of instability with the water is through the use of rain; it adds to the motion of the water.  In a play where water features so prominently, having rain onstage is fitting and Ferrieri doesn’t disappoint: it can fall in all of the pools simultaneously or in individual pools.  The use of rain also allows the audience to see the dream that Marcus describes to other characters – a dream about rain. 

McCraney often lets the audience witness Marcus’s internal world, and one of the most interesting dreams we’re privy to is the “Sun shower” dream.  In it, Marcus and his friends, Osha and Shaunta, perform a drag show to “Sun Shower” by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band.  Osha and Shaunta are Marcus’s “bests,” his best friends and confidantes, and like teenaged girls everywhere, they often tell him what to do.  O’Hara likens Marcus to The Wizard of Oz, saying “The characters around Marcus are the interesting ones.  They’re the ones that drive the action forward, and Marcus kind of goes where they take him.  And Marcus is like Dorothy: we don’t really know if this is actually happening, or if it’s all in his head.”  Ferrieri acknowledges that the idea of The Wizard of Oz and of the other characters helping Marcus on his journey influenced the set design.  Wanting to create a magical world for the play, he incorporated the boardwalks after finding an image of a zig-zagging boardwalk through a misty forest.  “The imagery I looked at when I was researching for this play is just a dreamy world.  You never know what’s going to come out of there.  And it’s emblematic of Marcus’s journey,” he says of the image and the set he created in response. 

The boardwalks and the spaces between the wood were also designed so that Ostrowski could light effectively.  The two men have worked together often at City Theatre, and as Ferrieri scrolls through the research images he’s compiled on his computer he explains, “I wanted to consciously create a world that light plays a big role in.  I love working with Andy.  He’s very aware of lighting everything – not just the actors, but the set, too.”  Ostrowski had one thing to say about the set: “Fantastic.”  Since the set itself doesn’t change during the show, Ostrowski is excited by the possibility of creating new locations with just light.  “I looked at the set and I thought, ok, I can really transform this world.”

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