Irene Lewis doesn't like to leave audiences in the dark.
Between scenes, that is.
Other directors may use blackouts to change scenery, but not Lewis, the artistic director of Center Stage.
"I think she looks at [a blackout] as an opportunity lost. What could be more boring than to have the audience sit there and look at their programs?" says sound designer Mark Bennett, a frequent collaborator at Center Stage.
Over the years, Lewis has filled the space between scenes with elaborately staged transitions that feature everything from a strolling saxophone player in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to farmhands carrying livestock in Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer.
In the production of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan that opens Wednesday, she has a concert pianist playing a toy piano.
With each new show, "I know I'm going to have [transitions]. I know they're going to be different from what I've done before. I assume everybody has them. I'm not sure why more people don't," Lewis says.
Her treatment of these interludes, however, is so distinctive, it has become a Lewis signature. Not merely another chance to entertain the audience, Lewis' transitions also illuminate the script, characters, playwright and the theatrical process itself.
To pull off what Bennett calls her "flights of fancy," Lewis relies on a host of collaborators, starting with a choreographer and a sound designer/composer and usually including dancers and musicians.
"We start with something and then someone adds an idea and someone adds an idea," Bennett says. "That's the great thing with Irene - you get to go into the kitchen cupboard and [say], 'What would it be like if we threw in this spice?'"
Here are some of the tricks they've come up with for Lady Windermere, a play about an upper-class British husband and wife whose marriage is threatened by the appearance of a woman with a questionable past.
The production opens with the pianist (Amy Klosterman) playing Mozart on a toy baby grand. As she plays, a dancer (Warren "Wawa" Snipe) enters and puts a green carnation in the lapel of his dinner jacket, followed by four other tuxedo-clad men, who bring in the furniture for the first scene.
Things get livelier in the next break. This time, Snipe - a trained gymnast as well as a dancer - does a diving flip over a coffee table, then sits on each of a succession of straight-backed chairs before tossing them, one by one, over his head to the other four scene shifters.
Fanciful as these activities may be, they are grounded in the text. "[Lewis] opens up the world to an immense amount of possibilities by giving it free rein but making sure it stays within a certain subliminal context," says Luis Perez, the New York-based choreographer who is collaborating on Lady Windermere.
Consider, for example, the thinking behind the toy piano, an instrument that has gained popularity in serious music circles in recent years. The idea originated with Bennett, who gave Lewis a shopping bag full of various CDs to consider.
The toy-piano music caught her attention because she felt the instrument could offer insight into the title character. "Lady Windermere is very innocent and very young, and there seemed to be some sort of marrying of those two things for me. So I begin and end the show with this sound. It's very pure, somewhat childlike, innocent, but very beautiful," she explains.
The green carnation Snipe puts in his buttonhole at the start of the production also has a specific meaning. A Wilde trademark and an emblem of homosexuality, the flower immediately identifies Snipe with Wilde.
From the start, Lewis told Perez she wanted the interludes to serve as an homage to Wilde. With that in mind, Perez decided Snipe would embody "the spirit of Oscar Wilde, so that he's almost inside his own show and he's directing traffic. He's creating the next scene you're going to see and the next emotional place that you're going to be."
Snipe, who is deaf, explained in an e-mail interview that he sees his character as "musical relief ... a 'Gene Kelly' way of being Oscar Wilde." He also sees him as a "Pied Piper" figure, who entertains and diverts theatergoers while leading them into the next scene.
Showing the underclass
This isn't the first time Snipe has been an actor/dancer/scene shifter in a Lewis production. One of his most memorable turns came in her 2002 staging of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Dressed in a bright blue bear suit with red claws, he portrayed the animal referred to in Shakespeare's most famous stage direction: "Exit, pursued by a bear."
Although the bear appears in only one scene in the script, Lewis expanded the role and had Snipe return several more times. When first seen, the bear was the violent creature Shakespeare intended, mauling his prey and toying with a bloody, severed human limb. But, she says, "when I used him again, he was very lyrical. He was a transformed bear." Winter's Tale is a play about rebirth and regeneration, and so the bear was also born again as a gentler soul.
Even when Lewis uses scene shifters in a more traditional manner, she builds in a substrata of meaning. "I'm frequently interested in showing the underclass, who are making it possible for the play to be on stage," she explains.
In her 1984 production of Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest - a play about a wealthy, white Southern family - Lewis turned the scene changes into "an entire subplot using African-Americans. ... They were the people that made it possible for these white people to have the life they had. It was built on [African-Americans'] backs. I started the play with a very little girl being trained in how to deal with the head man - an older black man teaching a younger girl how to get his newspaper, how to set his chair."
Similarly, in her 1999 production of George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession - a table-turning account that showed single working women bettering their lot in life - the scene changes were done exclusively by women. Furthermore, Lewis says, "I liked having the young girls accompanying their mothers cleaning the office because it is the young girls whom Mrs. Warren would recruit, pulling out of the underclass."
'As fun as it gets'
In theory, the way Lewis fills the empty spaces between scenes might seem cinematic - an attempt to appeal to a screen-oriented audience accustomed to seeing a continuous flow of action. But her intention couldn't be further from an imitation of film.
Lewis deliberately designs transitions that emphasize the artifice of theater. "I love seeing the mechanics of how something is done. I don't want to hide it," she says.
"My interest in interludes is: One, you're putting on the play, and the other, it's the act of putting on the play," she says. "The blurring of those two things has always interested me."
The effect is something that both choreographer Perez and sound designer Bennett describe as "surrealistic."
"It's as if suddenly Salvador Dali came in and took all of these ideas and did something very beautiful, very theatrical, kind of nutty, that completely relates," Bennett says.
And, he adds, the process of creating these transitions with Lewis is "as fun as it gets."
Perez, who is working with the artistic director for the first time, has also gotten caught up in the sheer fun of it. When he was initially told about some of the elements that might be incorporated into the Windermere interludes, his immediate reaction was: "How cool can you get? I thought, I can rock and roll with this."
Lewis hopes her transitions have the same effect on the audience - that they add an extra lift to a comedy or a whimsical touch to a serious drama.
Certainly when it comes to rocking and rolling, she's taking more risks all the time. "As I've stayed here and just done more shows, [the transitions] have gotten more and more complicated or more and more offbeat," she says. "I've been braver with them."
What: 'Lady Windermere's Fan'
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; with matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays, through Oct. 24 (now in previews)