“It’s been going pretty well.” It’s a surprisingly laid back, uncomplicated response from acclaimed set designer Hugh Landwehr. At the moment, he is perfecting the stage design for the Alley’s upcoming production of One Man, Two Guvnors. The farce is playwright Richard Bean’s skilled reinvention of Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 classic comedy play Servant of Two Masters, which ferries Goldoni’s timeless characters from 1700s Venice, Italy to 1963 Brighton, England. The play, which opens Wednesday, Oct. 7, is the first production to grace the newly remodeled stage, a highlight of the theater’s $46.5 million renovation.
But Landwehr isn’t breaking a sweat. Scarcely three months ago, the long-time Alley collaborator set designed for Berkeley Rep's One Man, Two Guvnors production. He has worked with Gregory Boyd, director of the Alley's adaptation, for many years now. According to Landwehr , this close working relationship, in some ways, streamlines the process. Not to mention his previous stint as set designer for the inaugural play of a newly constructed space. In 1987 Landwehr designed for Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s production of The Matchmaker. Recalling the experience makes him laugh. “There were a number of catastrophes,” he notes.
“The theater has very wisely planned extra time for us to be on stage,” he says. “I think it is going to be very intimate and feel more accessible to the audience.” It’s been critically helpful for the entire creative team. More importantly, the new layout is a success. The stage, a three-quarter thrust, extends into the audience, reducing the distance between actor and viewer.
He also has a strong group of artists around him. He credits the set’s lively frame to Lighting Designer David Lander. And when tackling the tricky task of situating the play’s live band on stage, he worked with Musical Director, Gregg Coffin and Sound Designer Lindsay Jones.
With the full support of the Alley staff behind him, Landwehr still had to get a little help from his friends, the Beatles. He watched the boy band’s iconic A Hard Day’s Night for the first time in his adult life and fell head over heels for the film again. “It captures the feeling of the play,” he says, nodding to the time period and the aesthetics that come with it.
Landwehr found himself similarly inspired by venerated Venetian painters, like Giovanni Antonio Canal and Battista Tiepolo. “The Venetian painters [were] always in the back of my mind as a flavor to be mixed with 1963,” he says. This mixture is apparent in the layered proscenium arches Landwehr designed and constructed for One Man, Two Guvnors. One arch is adorned with Canaletto-style clouds. On another, Landwehr plastered a collage drawn from British tabloids, including Telegraph and Daily Mail. Instead of “Rob Lowe’s Love Child,” a headline you may find splashed across The National Enquirer today, you will see headlines like “Dangerous and Dirty” or “Barefaced Lie” among faces, hands and “chunks of architecture,” Landwehr explains.
“You have these two things clashing together on stage, so I wanted to have something that referred to the Italy of Goldoni, but I also wanted to have something that told us we were in 1963 Brighton.”
One Man, Two Guvnors. Oct. 7–Nov. 1. $26-71. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. 713-220-5700. alleytheatre.org