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by Archives November 29, 2006

An exploration of two characters’ pasts is facilitated the by extensive use of lighting and a minimalistic set in The Satchmo’ Suite, which opened this week at the Saidye Bronfman Theatre.

The set for the show is a mixture of blacks and grays. Two chairs, a bed, a black sink, a nightstand, and a music stand are arranged on a square-shaped platform that is inlaid in a larger square platform built on an angle.

Throughout the play, Andrew Moodie (as cellist Hubert Clements) channels the spirit of Satchmo’- Jeremiah Sparks (as Louis Armstrong). Together they explore their pasts in order to help Moodie overcome his personal issues of discrimination and abandonment. The set has no colour. The costumes are black and white only. However, through creative use of lighting and stage space, Moodie and Sparks travel from nightclubs to family dinners, from parks to city streets and from New Orleans to Nova Scotia.

The monochromatic colour scheme is first interrupted when an offstage cellist, lit by a spotlight, begins to play. The rich copper colour of the cello gleams beneath the bright light. The brass of the trumpet has the same effect later on.

The audience is introduced to Moodie, who plays a mimed cello while the music adds flavour to the performance. The old-time movie atmosphere is set. Although the performance is set after the death of Louis Armstrong, the atmosphere is typical of his time period. It is reminiscent of the 1940s black-and-white movies and the birth of free jazz in the 1950s.

The lighting is used extensively to enhance the atmosphere of this production. Although the physical set never changes, white lights create a dapple effect like sun streaming through the trees, yellow spots create streetlights and purple floods create nightclubs. At one point, the underside of the stage is illuminated by bright yellow lights to evoke an explosion, and lights sitting on the floor throw light onto Moodie’s face as he peers into an oven.

A shining moment in this production is the baptism scene, when Moodie’s character, as a young child, plunges into a pool of water while listening to a preacher. Suddenly, everything is silent, and Moodie moves as though he were floating. The lights are low, as though filtered through the water. The theatre is filled with a low drone that sounds as though it is being muted as Moodie’s character sinks.

Overall, although the set did not change physically, it was very effectively used. The monochromatic colour scheme was useful because it served as a blank canvas for the actors to transform as they liked.

This performance of The Satchmo’ Suite was very persuasive and Sparks’ portrayal of Armstrong was particularly convincing. The lighting was unique and evocative and the use of a minimalist set was an effective strategy to tackle a performance that would otherwise demand several complicated set changes.

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