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Sweating blood at Center Stage

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sinister-looking tooth extractor." "Wicked-looking knife." So goes the 6 1/2 -page list of props for Center Stage's production of Sweeney Todd.

And that's not to mention the razors (10 altogether) or the gallons of blood.

"Lots of blood," in the words of Irene Lewis, director of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical, which runs through April 11.

Subtitled "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," the 1979 Tony Award-winning musical tells the macabre tale of a 19th-century barber, who, after being wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years, begins slashing his customers' throats as revenge against those who robbed him of his wife, daughter and livelihood. The play takes a wacky - and even darker - turn when Todd's opportunistic landlady begins making meat pies of the corpses.

Early on, as he caresses his gleaming razors, Todd, played by Joseph Mahowald, sings:

My lucky friends.

Till now your shine

Was merely silver.

Friends,

You shall drip rubies,

You'll soon drip precious

Rubies ...

Although it's possible to produce Sweeney Todd without any blood at all - to simply let the plot and music tell the ghoulish story - Lewis never considered this approach. She made the artistic decision to emphasize realism over metaphor to reinforce Todd's anguish.

"The juxtaposition of [Todd's] great emotional feelings - his yearning and sorrow - in contrast to this extraordinary violence is very important," she says. "If you don't have a feeling of ... his actually slitting throats and what that really means, I think you rob the story, and it becomes just poetic."

That realism has done nothing to dull her sense of humor: She's invited the American Red Cross to hold a blood drive at the theater. "It seems such a natural," Lewis says.

During weekly "blood meetings" over pizza or doughnuts, director and crew discussed how much blood they'd need per performance (approximately a half gallon); whether the actual color of blood looks authentic under the lights (it's not blue enough); and how to make sure the actors don't slip in the blood (Todd has a supply of towels).

After testing various commercial brands of fake blood, which have names like "Reel Blood" and "Filmblut," Jennifer Stearns, properties master, decided to make her own. Corn syrup, food coloring and soap are the main ingredients. She'll use more than two dozen gallons during the seven-week run.

Stearns also persuaded Rafal Szczepanowski, a biomedical design engineer from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, to design the straight razors, seven of which are, as he puts it, "functional bleeders." That is, they have a built-in mechanism that dispenses stage blood.

Though Szczepanowksi wasn't familiar with Sweeney Todd, he worked long nights at his Hanover home and quickly produced the razors, crafting their slender handles of polycarbonate, a bullet-resistant polymer. For the "functional bleeders," he built a channel on one side of the handle and outfitted it with a removable plastic pipette. The bulb of the pipette is filled with stage blood.

The instruments' beauty lies in their blades. Made from an aluminum alloy used in the aerospace industry, each contains hypodermic stainless steel tubing. When the bulb in the handle is squeezed, blood feeds into the tubing. It then oozes out of holes in the blade's edge.

"It is a very simple mechanism," Szczepanowksi says. But he continues: "The difficulty came in ... putting a tube in there that would be big enough to hold and convey the amount of blood that was needed - the maximum amount of blood with as little impediment as possible, easy to maintain so it doesn't clog up and can be easily cleaned, and also durable enough to withstand the run."

The loaded razors aren't the only means of dispensing blood. One victim, for example, bites into a small bag of blood hidden in his mouth (this blood is made without soap). Others squeeze blood on themselves from syringes concealed in their hands.

Deciding just how bloody a show should be is complicated. If it's too graphic, audience members have been known to walk out. Excessive blood and gore, however, "can even have the opposite effect," the production's New York-based fight coordinator, J. Allen Suddeth, writes in his book, Fight Directing for the Theater. "A great gusher," as he puts it, can make an audience laugh.

Center Stage's David Burdick acted as the show's barometer "because he has trouble looking at blood," Lewis says. The unfortunate costumer's discomfort goes back to a childhood accident, when he cut a finger on his cousin's Easy Bake Oven. "It's still a painful memory," he says.

Burdick has another reason to be wary of stage blood: His department is responsible for laundering the stained costumes. With this in mind, outfits that typically would be made of wool were made from wash-and-wear cotton. Easy clean-up is also the reason the blood recipe includes soap. Even so, the bloodied garments are immediately soaked in tubs of water.

To prevent the audience from becoming inured to the sight of blood, Lewis and Suddeth have varied the gory after-effects of each death. "The first throat mixes with [shaving] foam, so you see the foam. Another [person] is reading a newspaper, so [the paper] gets all bloody. So you don't have the same old, same old," Lewis says.

Another gruesome prop figures prominently, and repeatedly, in the script: Mrs. Lovett's meat pies.

Sales are slow at the bake shop run by Todd's landlady, played by Nora Mae Lyng, until she begins grinding up some of his victims and mixing them into her recipes.

For this twist, the prop shop supplies each performance with five edible pies (some homemade and the others, Marie Callendar, bought in bulk at BJ's Wholesale Club) and nine inedible ones ( made with dog food and shellac). The prop shop also created an array of body parts, from fingers and toes to a hand, foot, arms and a leg, all molded from the digits and extremities of staffers.

If director Lewis' instincts prove correct, the demanding score, the grisly plot, the logistics of coordinating razors and blood, won't repulse the audience. Instead, all of the components, bloody or not, will serve as seamless, intrinsic elements in what many believe to be a modern musical masterpiece.

Lewis yearned to direct Sweeney Todd for years, but it wasn't until she began working on the show that she realized how big an undertaking it was. "I have called it the Lear of musicals," she says. "You're in the room with a genius like Shakespeare, like Moliere, and you must work at the top of your abilities to even approach achieving some part of what he's written. And that's thrilling at the same time it is challenging. The blood is a sideline. That's easy compared to the rest."

Sweeney Todd

Where: Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. selected Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays. Through April 11

Tickets: $10-$60

Call: 410-332-0033

Blood Drive

In conjunction with its production of Sweeney Todd, Center Stage and the American Red Cross will hold a blood drive at the theater, 700 N. Calvert St., from 9 a.m.-noon, Sat., March 6. Donors will receive coupons for $5 off the price of Sweeney Todd tickets as well as a gift from the theater. A continental breakfast also will be provided.

For information, call 410-685-3200, ext. 722.

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