Sweating blood at Center Stage

'Sweeney Todd' has prop master creating her own 'authentic' mix

February 28, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Sinister-looking tooth extractor." "Wicked-looking knife." So goes the 6 1/2 -page list of props for Center Stage's production of Sweeney Todd.

And that's not to mention the razors (10 altogether) or the gallons of blood.

"Lots of blood," in the words of Irene Lewis, director of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical, which runs through April 11.

Subtitled "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," the 1979 Tony Award-winning musical tells the macabre tale of a 19th-century barber, who, after being wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years, begins slashing his customers' throats as revenge against those who robbed him of his wife, daughter and livelihood. The play takes a wacky - and even darker - turn when Todd's opportunistic landlady begins making meat pies of the corpses.

Early on, as he caresses his gleaming razors, Todd, played by Joseph Mahowald, sings:

My lucky friends.

Till now your shine

Was merely silver.

Friends,

You shall drip rubies,

You'll soon drip precious

Rubies ...

Although it's possible to produce Sweeney Todd without any blood at all - to simply let the plot and music tell the ghoulish story - Lewis never considered this approach. She made the artistic decision to emphasize realism over metaphor to reinforce Todd's anguish.

"The juxtaposition of [Todd's] great emotional feelings - his yearning and sorrow - in contrast to this extraordinary violence is very important," she says. "If you don't have a feeling of ... his actually slitting throats and what that really means, I think you rob the story, and it becomes just poetic."

That realism has done nothing to dull her sense of humor: She's invited the American Red Cross to hold a blood drive at the theater. "It seems such a natural," Lewis says.

During weekly "blood meetings" over pizza or doughnuts, director and crew discussed how much blood they'd need per performance (approximately a half gallon); whether the actual color of blood looks authentic under the lights (it's not blue enough); and how to make sure the actors don't slip in the blood (Todd has a supply of towels).

After testing various commercial brands of fake blood, which have names like "Reel Blood" and "Filmblut," Jennifer Stearns, properties master, decided to make her own. Corn syrup, food coloring and soap are the main ingredients. She'll use more than two dozen gallons during the seven-week run.

Stearns also persuaded Rafal Szczepanowski, a biomedical design engineer from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, to design the straight razors, seven of which are, as he puts it, "functional bleeders." That is, they have a built-in mechanism that dispenses stage blood.

Though Szczepanowksi wasn't familiar with Sweeney Todd, he worked long nights at his Hanover home and quickly produced the razors, crafting their slender handles of polycarbonate, a bullet-resistant polymer. For the "functional bleeders," he built a channel on one side of the handle and outfitted it with a removable plastic pipette. The bulb of the pipette is filled with stage blood.

The instruments' beauty lies in their blades. Made from an aluminum alloy used in the aerospace industry, each contains hypodermic stainless steel tubing. When the bulb in the handle is squeezed, blood feeds into the tubing. It then oozes out of holes in the blade's edge.

"It is a very simple mechanism," Szczepanowksi says. But he continues: "The difficulty came in ... putting a tube in there that would be big enough to hold and convey the amount of blood that was needed - the maximum amount of blood with as little impediment as possible, easy to maintain so it doesn't clog up and can be easily cleaned, and also durable enough to withstand the run."

The loaded razors aren't the only means of dispensing blood. One victim, for example, bites into a small bag of blood hidden in his mouth (this blood is made without soap). Others squeeze blood on themselves from syringes concealed in their hands.

Deciding just how bloody a show should be is complicated. If it's too graphic, audience members have been known to walk out. Excessive blood and gore, however, "can even have the opposite effect," the production's New York-based fight coordinator, J. Allen Suddeth, writes in his book, Fight Directing for the Theater. "A great gusher," as he puts it, can make an audience laugh.

Center Stage's David Burdick acted as the show's barometer "because he has trouble looking at blood," Lewis says. The unfortunate costumer's discomfort goes back to a childhood accident, when he cut a finger on his cousin's Easy Bake Oven. "It's still a painful memory," he says.

Burdick has another reason to be wary of stage blood: His department is responsible for laundering the stained costumes. With this in mind, outfits that typically would be made of wool were made from wash-and-wear cotton. Easy clean-up is also the reason the blood recipe includes soap. Even so, the bloodied garments are immediately soaked in tubs of water.

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