The mystery that Daniel Ettinger is trying to solve for the fall theater season could be characterized as a howdunit about a whodunit.
Everyman Theatre’s holiday offering is “Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express" and it’s a show in which the setting — the interior of the famous 1930s era, Istanbul-bound train — is arguably as major a character as the dead American tycoon found inside a compartment with a dozen stab wounds.
Washington-area playwright Ken Ludwig adapted Christie’s much-loved detective story for the stage; the novelist in turn was inspired by the real-life Orient Express that operated between 1883 and 2009 and was known for its opulent decor and aristocratic, and frequently royal, clientele.
“The most important parts of the Oriental Express were its polished wood and brass trim,” Ettinger said. “It was famous for its mahogany inlay, Art Deco patterned wallpaper and chandeliers.”
So, Ettinger’s version of the train has to look good, even though Everyman Theatre’s stage is far from ideal for a production of this magnitude. Like the train in Christie’s novel which gets stalled in a snowdrift, this is a project that could easily go off the rails.
Luckily, Ettinger, Everyman’s resident set designer, has designed more than 260 productions for New York and regional companies for budgets ranging between $2,000 and $500,000. He already has a million ideas for how to get away with “Murder” — and some are included in an edited and transcribed interview below.
What’s more, Ettinger has been fascinated by the physical problems posed by this kind of work for very nearly his whole life.
According to family legend, little Daniel was demanding to be taken to see the “set-ups” — the miniature Native American tent villages at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art — almost before he could talk. At age 7, he built the backdrop for a puppet show he put on with his mother. While in junior high, he designed the set for his first production staged for a live audience.
“My job is to take the world of the play and translate it into a practical reality that will fit the specifics of where the show is at: the size of stage, budget and crew," he said. "I love the geometry of things like this and figuring out how all the pieces can go together in our space. This is going to be so much fun.”
How does this compare to other sets you’ve created for Everyman?
We’ve done intricate shows before and shows of a big size, but mechanically this will be the biggest show Everyman has ever done.
What challenges does Ken Ludwig’s script pose?
The action goes back and forth between three train compartments. There’s a passenger compartment, the club compartment and scenes in the radio compartment. The radio scenes are brief but there are five of them. There are also scenes in the train corridors, in a restaurant in Istanbul and on the Istanbul station platform.
All of these scenes move very rapidly. Mr. Ludwig will write a scenic direction like: “There’s a commotion in the next car — and bang! — we’re in the corridor.”
It’s a very cinematic script. Gone are the old days when plays gave you time to set things up in advance.
What are the challenges posed by Everyman’s stage?
Before Vinnie [Lancisi, Everyman’s artistic director] bid on this show, he asked me, “Will it fit on our stage?”
Our stage is 50 feet long but only about 31 feet deep, which isn’t super deep. A lot of stages are close to 40 feet or even a little deeper.
But the real tell is our wing space. The train cars are mounted on three wagons that roll on and off stage. There also are seven tracking panels that are each 28 feet wide. You need someplace to put all the pieces that aren’t on stage for that particular scene.
There are no wings in this theater. We had to create a framework that adds wings by closing part of the stage off. There’s also a show curtain on which we can do projection work as the train moves into Istanbul.
This show also has 11 actors who are almost all on stage at the same time. Some of the actors play multiple roles so they walk on and off. There’s no room for them to change costumes in the wings. They have to do that offstage.
How tight is it?
Sometimes there’s only an inch and a half of clearance between set pieces that move on and off stage. And, I still have to fit in all the cables and motors needed to move them.
You must have been a whiz at puzzles when you were a kid.
I love figuring out how things fit together. My grandfather, who escaped Berlin in 1939, was a German rocket scientist. The only thing I remember of him visiting was that we could never eat at the dining room table because he’d bring out these thousand-piece puzzles. His brother is mentioned in the list of world chess champions. I look at them and wonder what happened to me.