In his director's notes for the Folger Theatre's "Much Ado About Nothing," John Neville-Andrews writes that he chose to set the play in the 1930s because he saw it as a "joyous, optimistic and romantic era . . . reflecting the spirit of the play." The two men charged with realizing this concept were the designers, William Barclay and John Carver Sullivan.
The two had not worked together before, nor had they worked at the Folger (although Barclay once had a brief job painting scenery for a more traditional production of "Much Ado" in 1976). But each found the period compatible, and the production's success is due in no small measure to their efforts.
Barclay had one major assignment: Build an ocean liner on the Folger's small stage.
"The first part was solving the practical problems of the stage," he says. "Like what to do with the columns, which are permanent, and the fact that there is no fly space and very little space offstage. And John wanted a grand piano, too."
He began by putting the piano on a mechanically operated revolve in the center to facilitate scene changes, prompted in part by the fact that both stagehands are women and he thought they would have problems shuttling a grand piano around. Once he had the central revolve, he decided to have another -- a doughnut-shaped strip encircling the piano. "That set the pattern of circles," he says, "so everything else kind of followed naturally from that."
He wrapped the two immovable columns in light bulbs and covered them in light fabric to "soften them, make them less clunky." The Art Deco boat was partially inspired by a picture of the Normandie, adapted for theatrical needs. Brass railings were fashioned from painted plastic tubing and the trim from Mylar tape, and the fashionable zebra-skin chairs from upholstery velour painted and airbrushed and tacked to two chairs found in a Baltimore antique shop.
Sullivan had to make about 70 costumes, ranging from the stewards' uniforms to elegant evening dresses. The men's clothes, primarily double-breasted jackets and loose pants, were found in stores such as Classic Clothing here and Early Halloween in New York. "The closer you get to contemporary clothes, the harder it is," he says, "because people have a stronger idea of what looks good on them."
For example, the actor who plays Don Pedro, Steven Crossley, wanted to look tall, so Sullivan gave him all light-colored costumes and no hats. He does, in fact, look tall on stage, although he is actually of medium height.
The biggest surprise for Sullivan, who, like Barclay, has designed for a variety of regional theaters, is that the Folger did not have any contemporary clothes in its closets. "All they have are Elizabethan doublets . . . I had a good budget $8,000 to $10,000 until I realized I had to get everything -- every pair of shoes, cuff links, suspenders, nylons with seams, undergarments for the women."
One of his sources for period clothes is a store in New York that has patterns from 1900 to 1950. None of his designs had to be altered before he came down to Washington, even though he had never seen the actors and was working only from measurements and Polaroid snapshots.
Both Sullivan, 32, and Barclay, 34, live in New York. Barclay, a graduate of the New York University School of the Arts, will begin work soon on a movie, "Special Elections," starring Burt Reynolds. He is an art director as well as a scenic designer, and has been an assistant designer on more than a dozen Broadway shows. Sullivan, a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University, is already back in the '30s, working on a production for Buffalo's Studio Arena of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" -- which, as luck would have it, is also set on a ship.