Iconic ironwork

Three stories tall, a massive panel that appears to be made of glass and ornate New Orleans-style ironwork looms over the set of "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The panel is actually made of Plexiglas and paint — reflecting the skill of OSF designers and artisans who are masters at tricking the eye.

OSF Scenic Designer Christopher Acebo designed the set for this season's production of Tennessee Williams' classic play, which continues through Nov. 2 in the Bowmer Theatre.

Ironwork decorates windows, balconies, staircases, railings and other architectural features in New Orleans, where the play is set. Extremely ornate and detailed, much of the historic ironwork was created by free and enslaved black artisans.

A panel for the play made of real glass and iron would have been too heavy, expensive, fragile and difficult to make.

The piece also has to be set up and removed multiple times each week because four plays are rotating through the Bowmer this season.

To deal with those issues, OSF artisans projected ironwork imagery onto sheets of Plexiglas, which comes covered in paper, said OSF Scenic Artist Sandy Phillips.

They traced the ironwork designs onto the paper using Sharpie markers, she said.

Then, they used X-Acto knives to cut out the shapes of the ironwork, creating a stencil. That step alone took a week of work, with three people bent over the task, Phillips said.

After spray-painting the panels black, they peeled away the remaining paper to reveal the black paint ironwork designs, she said.

OSF carpenters attached the panels together and made them watertight for scenes in the play when water runs down the surface, mimicking rain.

On the set, the massive panel is complemented by a New Orleans-style spiral staircase created by master welders and other artisans at OSF.

Although Phillips spent countless hours working on the panel project, she said she was still not prepared for how large it would look on stage.

"I remember standing under it and looking up and thinking, 'Oh my lord. It's huge,' " Phillips recalled. "I always love it whenever a show opens. I'm one cog in this great machine. Whenever I see a show open, I see what all the other cogs are doing. I always look forward to that day."

Audiences may not realize this, but the 40-foot-tall panel is wider at the top than the bottom.

"It is leaning out over the audience. It's wider at the top so it's more looming and ominous," Phillips said.

Phillips said Acebo wanted to create the look of a masculine world that is going to crash in on the character Blanche.

Lacking money and trying to escape her past, the mentally fragile Blanche moves into a tiny apartment with her sister Stella and Stella's brutal husband, Stanley.

Phillips said "A Streetcar Named Desire" is such an iconic, familiar play that Acebo had to search for ways to make it fresh again for everyone who sees the OSF production.

When she first saw the towering panel go up with its ironwork pattern, Phillips said, "I thought, 'This will get our attention again.' "

For more information on the play, visit www.osfashland.org.

To read more about the creation of scenic pieces for OSF plays and to view additional photos, visit Phillips' blog at cassandrasandy.weebly.com/blog.html.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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