A Show That Comes With Strings Attached

By John Barry
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 2, 2007

The opening stage directions for Noah Haidle's "Vigils" are brief and cryptic: This play makes many quick shifts in time, which could or could not be reflected in costume. There is also quite a bit of flying. After three weeks of rehearsals, the four actors had their lines down. Now it was time to tackle the flying.

"We had a couple of options," director Colette Searls said. "We could fake it, as if it was all in a dream." That was more or less what happened in Chicago, where Haidle's play had its premiere run in October. "Or we could really get him to fly." Ultimately, Searls and Woolly Mammoth Theatre decided to take the leap. "Vigils" would be performed partially above stage, with some actors suspended from harnesses or ropes.

Once the domain of Cirque du Soleil and "Peter Pan," airborne performances are becoming increasingly integrated into conventional theater. A recent version of "The Tempest" by the Shakespeare Theatre Company featured the appropriately named Ariel, who delivered many of his lines suspended about 40 feet above the footlights. "A Midsummer Night's Dream," also by the Shakespeare, and "A Prayer for Owen Meany" at Round House Theatre Bethesda also used wire-and-harness apparatuses to add a dimension to the stage.

A year and a half after moving into its D Street NW facility, Woolly Mammoth was ready to try it in its warehouse-size theater. "It's nice to see the payoff here," said Searls, looking at the high-ceilinged, cavernous backstage. "We're finally getting a chance to stretch our limits here."

As a playwright, the prolific 28-year-old Haidle offers plenty of opportunities for limit stretching. The two central characters in "Vigils," Widow (Naomi Jacobson) and Soul (Michael Russotto), spend much of the play engaged in a comic-tragic tug of war. At one point, after being confined in a box, Soul is finally liberated, a liberation that involves flight.

"I don't like heights at all," Russotto confessed. "I do have dreams of flying, but then I'm only a foot or so off the ground." He looked up at Woolly Mammoth's concrete rafters a little dubiously. "And that's Grand Canyon height."

Five days before opening, Russotto was going to dangle about 30 feet up while Searls figured out how to block the scene. The hope was that using wires, pulleys and a large, thick rope that two stagehands were directed to hoist offstage right, Russotto would gradually ascend, reciting his monologue until he reached the spotlight tracks. He then would glide stage right over the set and be let down softly -- one hoped -- into the wings.

Helping him out was David Hearn, East Coast representative for Flying by Foy, a Nevada-based company. The white-bearded Hearn has the aura of a consummate professional, having engineered the ascents and descents of actors and opera singers "all over the Northeast." He has taught the actors at Shakespeare Theatre how to fly. The Kennedy Center is his next client, for a spring production of "Die Walk├╝re" by the Washington National Opera.

Hearn buckled the large leather harness on Russotto's lower body -- a tight squeeze. Two wires dropped from above and were attached to the harness. "You all right?" Hearn asked. Russotto nodded. "Okay."

Stagehands started to pull their ropes. The actor ascended to about 10 feet and paddled around, gradually getting the hang of it. He tried a back flip, then delivered his line: And I fly. At first I'm scared of what's to come. For a moment, at least, Russotto didn't need to act. They raised him 20 more feet.

After the tech run, the actors headed off for a dinner break. Hearn was disassembling his equipment alone on the stage. In his years as a flying consultant, one had to ask, had anything ever gone really wrong? "I don't remember the disasters," Hearn said with a wink. "For obvious reasons."

Vigils Woolly Mammoth Theatre 202-393-3939 Through Feb. 25

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