It's about thirty minutes to showtime on a recent matinee day, but backstage, in the office of Karl Rausenberger, South Pacific's production propertyman, there's no sign of a sweat. Against a wall, a flat-screen television is humming quietly, in preparation for an NFL-playoff game later in the day. Rausenberger's crew -- his college-age son, Charlie, filling in for Rudy Wood; Mark Dignam; and John Ross -- are plopped on chairs and sofas, with laptops on. In a few minutes, the SP overture will play and these guys will spring into action.
With a show this size, the propertymen have heavy responsibilities -- literally and figuratively. They look after the production's furniture, set dressing, food and water. "I worked for 13 years on Phantom of the Opera, Rausenberger says. "That show was heavily automated. The design for South Pacific is different. A lot of the set -- the truck, the airplane -- gets pushed on and off stage by us and the cast. We've got it down, but it's still a workout."
In director Bartlett Sher's conception, divisions and commonalities are a central theme of South Pacific. For Rausenberger's crew, that means they wear World War II denim clothing, just like the Seabees onstage. "I don't mind," comments Dignam. "It's all in the spirit of the thing."
During the technical period before the show opened, the property guys were in near-constant motion, helping to implement changes from Sher and the set designer, Michael Yeargan. "Some long nights there," Rausenberger comments, good-naturedly. He mentions that the biggest development then was when the stage flooring had to be replaced. "It was buckling here and there. It doesn't any more."
Once South Pacific was up and running, the propertymen could settle into Rausenberger's office and work the show from the two main backstage prop tables outside their den. "We arrive about 90 minutes before curtain," says Ross, "and pre-set the show." That process, added Rausenberger, involves things like maintaining the shower for the "Wash That Man" number. "The shower has to be cleaned from the night before, and then prepped -- soap, water, towels."
Perhaps the biggest item that the backstage guys have to be concerned about is the motor driving the slip stage -- which creates a major effect that I am still, after all these months, not going to spell out in this blog. "That's quite a piece of equipment," Rausenberger says, adding that the slip stage is actually the province of William Nagle, the production carpenter. "There's a big winch there," Rausenberger says, "and a half-inch cable. It's never malfunctioned, thank God."
Since early March, when SP had its first preview, there have been (knock wood) no serious technical glitches of any kind. "We've been very lucky in that respect," Rausenberger says. "I hope it stays that way."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com