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A play finds its tipping point

October 30, 2005|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

THE title character of Moliere's 1668 comedy "The Miser" focuses so relentlessly on money that other parts of his life are deteriorating from neglect. To make this palpable, director Dominique Serrand envisioned a set that would disintegrate, to indicate that the miser's home -- his family -- is falling apart around his ears.

"If it had been possible, we would have destroyed the house completely," Serrand says. In the attempt to come up with something similarly dramatic, he and designer Riccardo Hernandez -- working on the Theatre de la Jeune Lune production that La Jolla Playhouse is hosting through Nov. 13 -- decided that the floor would literally give way.

The effect comes deep into the show's second half, after the miser, having just had a fierce argument with his adult son, learns something that makes him even angrier. As he stamps his feet, a great groan is heard and a huge section of the floor comes undone.

"It's sort of like a teeter-totter," says Sarah Agnew, who, in her role as the miser's daughter, has a particularly memorable encounter with it.

The floor section -- roughly 12 feet deep and 24 feet wide -- occupies the back third of the playing area. It rests on a steel substructure that holds it about a foot and a half above the actual stage floor at the edge closest to the audience and -- because of the floor's upward slope -- about 2 feet at the back wall. At its center, the section is attached to an upright pole. That connection operates like a ball joint, allowing the floor to tip in all directions, explains Chad Woerner, the La Jolla Playhouse technical director who oversaw the set's installation there. Steve Setterlun, technical director at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., devised the mechanics when Minneapolis-based Jeune Lune readied the production at ART last year.

The platform is locked until its cue for action. Once it's been released, cables can be engaged to hold it at a predictable angle for acrobatics. The actors' body weight sets the floor in motion, though the cables steady the platform and slow the speed of some shifts.

The floor's behavior is carefully choreographed among the actors, the stage manager and two backstage operators. Agnew, as the daughter, enters without knowing the floor has come loose and goes twisting and tumbling down the incline -- a stunt that's all the more incredible because she's dressed in a long hoop skirt. Things get still crazier with the arrival of an old gentleman in a wheelchair, who rolls precariously.

The actors are like kids let loose on a playground. "I have a blast," Agnew says.

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