Designs for Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet keep us in the know

posted by Molly MacLagan, Literary and Dramaturgy Intern

City Theatre Company’s production of Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s coming of age tale, closes on Sunday.  Part of the same trilogy as City Theatre’s 2008 hit, The Brothers Size, the show follows the title character as he comes to terms with his sexuality and searches for meaning in the cryptic dreams he’s been having.  Marcus’s father, Elegba, also dreamed we’re told.  “I’m just confused,” Marcus says to the elderly soothsayer character, Elegua.  “I mean, why my daddy dreams made you sad?  What about my dreams make you get quiet.”  Marcus wonders if perhaps his father’s dreams are the key to understanding his own.   However, considering that Marcus lives in the fictional town of San Pere, Louisiana, whose name means “without father,” it’s no surprise that Elegba is nowhere to be found. 

In spite of the angst that Marcus and his friends experience, the world the playwright has created is also one of hilarity and humor.  Within moments of the play starting, Marcus’s friend Shaunta Iyun laments the heat of an August funeral in Louisiana, saying “Lord, I’m in hell and I ain’t even the one dead.”  Such lines act as signposts for costumer Ange Vesco, who says of the funeral “I’m not sure any of them actually cares that Shango is dead.  They’re here to be seen, and they’ll wear whatever the hell they want.”  That kind of information is important in establishing character, she explains. When Shun enters the scene in her sexiest out-on-the-town getup, the audience learns something about her.  She is a woman who isn’t defined by men, but also a woman who may not be the best example for her daughter, Osha.  When Vesco and director Robert O’Hara discussed Shun’s character and clothing, the word “inappropriate” came up repeatedly.  That’s something the costume needed to communicate clearly.  “What I do is I use clothes the characters wear as a way to instantly convey information about them to the audience.” 

Conveying information is a large part of what any theatrical design does.  Sound designer Joe Pino says that he feels a responsibility to provide information on an intellectual level, but also on an emotional level.  “Sound design is connected to the emotional life of the play, and the audience’s experience of that world,” he reflects.  His job can be to create literal sounds, such as thunder, or to create an abstract sound, such as sugar.  “[The story] at that moment is about the origin of the word ‘sweet.’  The words are already telling us what’s happening – the sound doesn’t need to tell us the same information again, so if it can be metaphoric it will help the audience to consider the deeper meanings and thoughts of the play instead of just illustrating the surface.” 

This concept naturally carries over into costuming.  The ensemble Vesco specifically created for Shua, the young man visiting from the North, was deliberately more urban than those of the other characters, and she describes the look as distinctly New York or North East.  On a deeper level, though, Vesco wanted to create a look that seemed out of place when compared to the other characters’ wardrobes.  She recalls “I wanted him to look like he didn’t belong.  He had to put your antenna up that nothing good is going to happen with this person.”

  Vesco points out that the characters in the play are larger than life.  The designs support the world of the play, which is written in a highly stylized way with actors speaking directly to the audience to describe the inner life of their characters, so naturalism isn’t necessarily a part of the design process.  Pino explains “The biggest challenge in a show like this is not getting too literal.  Having worked with Robert before, I know he’s not really interested in literal sounds.”

Having the opportunity to return to McCraney’s Brother/Sister Plays trilogy is another aspect of Marcus that both designers have enjoyed.  Pino and Vesco both worked with O’Hara (and scenic designer Tony Ferrieri) on City Theatre’s production of The Brothers Size, and being reunited has been an exciting experience for both designers.  Vesco says, “My favorite part about working on Marcus has been the chance to do another part of the trilogy.  I think this play is so beautiful, and I really love Tarrell’s writing!”  For Pino, working on another play from the trilogy presented some practical advantages, as well.  “The Brothers Size was recent enough that I remember the sorts of sounds that I used for it, but far enough away that I don’t remember the specifics,” Pino muses.  “So a lot of the sounds [in Marcus] are my memory of how that play sounded and how those textures would move out of the garage [where Ogun worked] and into the swamp [that surrounds San Pere].” 

The sounds on that swamp in Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet are of a storm that’s looming.  Pino and O’Hara recognized the importance of what Pino calls the “sensual qualities” of the play, its events, and its characters, and how those qualities inform the way the show might sound.  “There’s sound under almost the entire show,” he says.  “It’s subtle, but it’s there.”  Pino’s designs help transform the set from place to place, discreetly providing a soundtrack for life in the projects and the world on the bayou.  The transformations facilitated by the costumes are more tangible, providing the means for actors to do triple-duty, since Starla Benford and Jaime Lincoln Smith both play three characters apiece.  The wigs in the show, provided by Penn Wigs, were a big help, but there are other ways to create distinctions between characters.  Vesco explains that accessories such as a pair of glasses or different shoes not only create a visual difference, but provide different information about the character.  Also, she says, “Luckily Jaime and Starla are both incredible actors, so my job was a little easier.” 

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