"Zoo Story" visualizes a small story with big technology
"All I need for comedy is a park, a police man and a pretty girl."
Famed silent movie star Charlie Chaplin once uttered that quote, one that currently rings very true to Milwaukee theater professional Grace DeWolffe considering her latest production.
"When you break it down to its simplest elements, that's what the story is about. There's no pretty girl or policeman, but there are two guys and a park bench."
The story DeWolffe is talking about is "Zoo Story," a famous one-act show by Edward Albee about a slowly deteriorating conversation between two very different men – comfortably well-off Peter and down-on-his-luck Jerry (played by actors and Marquette alumni Matt Wickey and Harry Loeffler-Bell) – that she's currently directing at Marquette University. However, she's working with much more than merely just two guys and a bench for this production. In fact, she's got $1.5 million worth of technology to bring her show to life.
As it turns out, "Zoo Story" – running for six shows between April 9 and 13 – is not being performed at the Helfaer Theatre or even the Weasler Auditorium on campus. It's actual the debut production for the Engineering College's Visualization Lab, a new, high-tech space created inside the freshly built Engineering Hall, located at 1637 W. Wisconsin Ave.
From the outside, there's little special about the Visualization Lab. It's a very small room, seating only about 20 to 25 people, located on the bottom floor of the new Engineering Hall, which opened to the public just back in 2011. It's the stage itself, however, that's unique.
Like almost any traditional stage, the performance area is comprised of three blank walls and a floor. However, those surfaces – including the floor – all serve as projection screens, able to display extremely high-resolution, hyper-realistic images. In the case of "Zoo Story," DeWolffe – with the help of two programmers – is able to create a park backdrop of alarmingly realistic clarity and brightness.
"I really like playing with people's expectations," DeWolffe said. "If the audience sees a man sitting in a park, and it's so hyper-realistic, then we suspend our disbelief really easily."
The space technically has the capabilities to project moving images, as well as 3-D images into the visualization area. Unfortunately, the combination of real people, moving images and 3-D projections is something DeWolffe and the rest of the Visualization Lab staffers are still tinkering with ("the perspective got all weird," DeWolffe noted). However, the young director and her set programmers have still been testing the creative limits and capabilities of the space.
"They are learning so many new things with this space, and because they are learning the limitations of the space, they can also break a lot of rules because they don't know what they can't do yet," DeWolffe said. "I basically just ask, 'Can we make it do this?' and they go, 'We'll figure out if we can.' They work on it and bring me stuff, and I'm like, 'That's exactly what I was thinking!'"
One of the big things DeWolffe and her two designers have been putzing around with the projections is changing the reality of the environment. The resolution of the park around the two men distorts. The color contrast becomes slightly unnatural. The world glitches. Suddenly, much like for one of the characters in "Zoo Story," the carefully created sense of reality is no longer safe.
"Peter's perception of his own reality is also the audience's perception of the reality that they're walking into," DeWolffe said. "The suspension of disbelief that goes into the play is all that Peter believes to be true. And Jerry comes in and realizes a lot of things are lies, and tries to tell us these things in very cryptic and odd ways."
It's a fascinating, mind-bending staging component to a show with already a lot on its mind. For DeWolffe, the interactions between Jerry and Peter in "Zoo Story" remind her of Gestalt therapy and existentialism. Others, according to the director, have theorized the story plays out like an allegory for Jesus. Chester Loeffler-Bell, artistic assistant professor in the department of Digital Media and Performing Arts, has his own ideas on what "Zoo Story" is trying to say.
"For me, it's just how people's lives change in an instant," Loeffler-Bell said. "There's people in this world who go through life without any tragedy or problems. Sure, things come up here or there, but they just live their lives and things go great. But there are also people that things just happen and things don't work out."
"There's a couple of references in the play where Jerry tells Peter pretty much that his life is going to change; it's over as you know it. For me, that's an important theme. You could be headed in one direction in your life, and you can have an event that will just make you take a right turn or a left turn."
Loeffler-Bell is one of the driving forces behind bringing Albee's show back to Marquette. He knows "Zoo Story" fairly well, having previously starred as Peter back in school at Carroll College and directing a production about a decade ago at Marquette. He then saw Harry Loeffler-Bell (his son) and Matt Wickey perform together in Marquette's 2011 rendition of "The Laramie Project" and thought the two would make a good Peter and Jerry. It was just a matter of finding a place to do it.
"About a year or so ago, I was meeting with John LaDisa, who runs the Vis Lab," Loeffler-Bell recalled. "He was looking for projects to do in there, so I thought why don't we try 'Zoo Story' in there and see what happens."
So far, "Zoo Story" seems to be a solid first step for future collaborations between theater and the Visualization Lab. Loeffler-Bell has a couple of ideas for other shows in the future for the space, as well as using its mapping out capabilities to render and see potential set designs for Helfaer Theatre productions.
"We can have actors wander around potential sets," Loeffler-Bell said. "We can check proportions. We can check color. We can even check out what lighting angles might work and might not work. There's a whole different avenue we can explore in the space."
In that regard, the Visualization Lab is living up to its potential as a blank slate, capable of many things. For DeWolffe, however, before she can think about the future of the space, she has a show to put on, one that's much more than merely a display of impressive tech.
"That's kind of the coolness of this play. If we don't have these projection screens, if we don't play with this technology, all you really need is two people and a bench. So it's going to work out no matter what we do."
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