November 16, 2010

Talk about shoes! 

Of all the elements of a comedian’s costume, it was the shoes that most delighted Tony Award nominee Daniel Breaker on the first day of rehearsal for his Seattle debut in a modern, but not exclusively contemporary, reworking of Molière’s A Doctor In Spite of Himself

Costume designer Elizabeth Caitlin Ward says that actor/director/clown-master Christopher Bayes, who, along with actor/writer/classic comedian Steven Epp, adapted the short farce as an often manic one-act romp, and who directed its premiere at the Intiman Theatre, likes to have at least a simplified set of costumes for the cast available from the first day of rehearsal.

Bayes had worked with Ward before, including once on another adaptation of a piece by Molière (Scapin based on Les Fourberies de Scapin) at the Intiman Theatre. He knew she would bring a fascination with classic comedy costuming as well as a willingness to adapt designs throughout the rehearsal process. This was important to Bayes’ approach. When Intiman announced the project, they said it would be a Bayes/Epp adaptation that would be “further developed with the company in rehearsal.”

“Chris wants the costumes, or at least a start of the costumes, from the first day of rehearsal,” Ward says. She is used to this as she’s worked a lot in Chinese Opera where that is standard procedure. “In Chinese opera, we have rehearsal costumes, simplified versions of the final ones.”

“The cast could begin to play with their costumes from day one” she explains. “For example, Chris wanted the belly for Alan Gilmore, who plays a character with an enormous comic belly, so he could be working up the physical comedy from the very start. We altered the size and even the position of the belly as we went along.”

“Daniel loved having the costume from the beginning,” Ward continues. “He could start developing business with the hat: different ways to pull at it, tilt it, and the like. And the ruff—the ruffle at the neck that may seem theatrical today but which was part of the world at the time of Molière — just as the neck tie is today.”

“Daniel’s favorite part of the costume,” she says, “was his shoes. I gave him a Stacy Adams-style that is a favorite of clowns because of the extreme flexibility at the ankle. It is long and narrow and can be articulated easily. He could go up on his toes or on the sides of his soles and move in a way that almost makes his feet a character.”

Ward had worked up costumes for all of the characters which took as their starting point the classic commedia dell’arte characters and characteristics. “These looks, the pieces and the way they go together, have a history of their own,” says Ward. “They don’t begin and end with commedia dell’arte. Each generation of classic clowns has added to the stock.”

She says her designs included Pulcinella, Pedrolino, and Colombina but also Art Carney, The Marx Brothers, and Buster Keaton. “The way Art Carney would wear a hat sidewise or the Marx Brothers might wear their pants too short or their jackets too tight—each generation of great clowns adds to the available touches.”

Color was another of Ward’s tools. “The world Molière lived in was bright and colorful,” she says. “Modern audiences often think of the past in black and white when, in reality, dyes were bright and sharp, especially for the clothing of the wealthy or costumes of the actors. It’s now that we live in a more neutral world.” She adds that the scenic design of Narelle Sissons was also connected to the world of theater in the time of Molière. “Even the floor color was a specific reference to Molière’s theatre,” she says, referring to a contemporary painting of Molière’s troupe performing on a red floor.

Ward was present for the entire rehearsal process. “Who wouldn’t want to be in rehearsal with these people?” she asks. “I mean, Chris Bayes, Steve Epp, Daniel Breaker—come on! To be there, sort of ‘present at the creation,’ and have them say, ‘Hey, she’s one of us!’ That’s great!”

So, how different were the final designs compared to what they began with for rehearsals? “Aside from the creation of an entirely new costume for one scene, an angel costume for Dan Darryl Rivera which came completely out of ideas in the rehearsals,” she says the final costumes were “actually, almost exactly the same, which isn’t always the case. Mostly it was the cast developing the comedy around the costumes and then refining the design to work best.”

She says she also added a pair of waders for Ashely Marshall who plays Breaker’s shrewish wife. “The waders came out of the give and take of rehearsal. When she saw them, she came up with the idea of putting water inside them so she could squish onto stage. What a ball!”

It seems that footwear featured prominently from day one of rehearsals all the way through to the squishy entrance on opening night.

Classic Comedy Costumes

Costume designer Elizabeth Caitlin Ward creates Molière's
A Doctor In Spite of Himself