The Power of Contrast: Lessons Learned from Vertigo Theatre’s Wait Until Dark

Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark is a play filled with dualities. Characters take on disguises to mask their true nature, an inner-city apartment serves both as a place of comfort and horror and the use of light and darkness on-stage are even imbedded directly into the plot. Vertigo Theatre’s production of the play embraces these contrasts, resulting in a tense and well-executed piece of theatre. The best qualities of the performance that I attended are a result of particular directorial decisions, which I will use as inspiration for my upcoming production of Waiting for Godot.

The casting of Michael Tan as the antagonist, Roat, is a counterintuitive choice. The actor is small in stature, especially when compared to his co-conspirator, Carlino, played by Paul Cowling. This increases the tension in their scenes together, where Roat exudes such menace that Carlino, a hardened ex-detective, is visibly intimidated by him. Tan uses sudden, dramatic changes to his speech and movement, combined with the character’s cryptic sense of humor, to portray a villain that is believably frightening. Physical size quickly becomes an afterthought with such a changeable and unpredictable character.

This has informed my own decisions on the casting and performance of the role of Pozzo. Much like Roat, he is a character who abruptly switches from one extreme to the other. In his first appearance, he treats Vladimir and Estragon with distant politeness, but also viciously abuses his slave, Lucky. By having a physically unimposing man play the role, these sudden outbursts will be far more shocking to the audience. The lines directed at Lucky will be performed with a tone of disgust in order to stand out from his otherwise pleasant demeanor. For this role, my ideal casting is Tom Waits. He exudes an eccentric charm, which suits the inherent strangeness of Pozzo’s appearances in the play. He is also able to portray both quiet menace and forceful rage with his voice, which will be essential in showing the character’s two distinct sides.

The strongest element of Vertigo’s production is the use of lighting and sound to build tension. In the opening scene, Carlino wanders through the apartment, which is only visible through exterior lighting shining through the window. He walks around in near silence, with only his footsteps and the occasional swell of ambient sound to punctuate the action. During the climax of the play, the lights are cut and much of the action takes place in complete darkness, forcing the audience to experience the scene through on-stage sound.  The commitment to minimalism in these scenes builds tension and works in contrast to the other, dialogue-heavy sections.

In my production, I would like to implement these techniques to a similar effect. By limiting the use of off-stage music and sound effects, the pauses and breaks that frequently appear in the dialogue will be further accentuated. This reflects themes in the play, as the absence of sound is a subtle way to highlight the concept of “nothingness” that is explored. The same principle will be applied to the lighting, which will stay mostly uniform throughout the performance. I would like to use warm, orange lighting to give the set a dream-like, surreal look that will also make the time of day ambiguous. I will make subtle changes near the end of each act in order to give a sense of unease as day finally passes into night. The overhead lighting will transition to a cold, blue color, and ambient wind sound will fade in. This will be repeated identically in both acts to add to the feeling of repetition that the play thrives on.

Another impressive aspect of this production of Wait Until Dark is its set. The play takes place in a post-World War II Greenwich Village apartment, and the attention to detail is immediately noticeable. It looks lived in, and the space is utilized to its full potential through interaction between it and the cast. This level of realism makes the fake dwelling feel alive and familiar. When the situation becomes physically dangerous for Susy, the protagonist, at the hands of Roat, lighting and sound techniques are used to transform the set from comfortable to foreboding. This contrast makes the climax far more unsettling for the audience. A home is a person’s refuge from the world, and to see it become a place of imprisonment and terror is disturbing. This feeling can only be evoked when the audience is able to suspend their disbelief with relative ease and inject themselves into the story.

My set for Waiting for Godot will be very different in its execution. Rather than a grounded, specific location, the play takes place in a barren, unnamed place. The only major set piece will be the iconic, seemingly dead tree, which will be located center stage. While the set will be sparse in nature, the focus on detail and audience investment present in Vertigo’s production can still be applied. My primary aim is to make the set appropriate for the abstract nature of the play. I would like the tree to be detailed and imposing, thick with intertwining branches. In the second act, the leaves that have appeared will be brightly colored in order to highlight the visual change that has occurred. When night falls, the tree will be backlit, casting shadows across the stage, menacing in comparison to its daytime appearance. A large stage with lots of unoccupied space will highlight the sparseness of the setting, making Theatre Calgary an ideal location in the city for the performance. All of these decisions will contribute to a surreal aesthetic that draws the audience into the unusual world that the play occupies.

While Wait Until Dark it is a fundamentally different type of play than Waiting for Godot, Vertigo Theatre’s interpretation has given me vital insight into how I can stage my own, effective production.