In his advice about how best to make your way in the world, the Shakespearean character Polonius admonishes his son Laertes, “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, // But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy; // For the apparel oft proclaims the man…” (Hamlet, I. iii.) Indeed we are visual creatures happily led through the world by wayfinding graphics (like man/female restroom icons), or tragically by racial profiling (we, of course, note the features of people we meet, but must ethically assess ascriptions we give them). And attire often provides a granular iconography that results in a sort of profiling; for instance, a man in an Armani suit, carrying a briefcase signals a businessman or lawyer, and given Armani, he likely would be profiled as “rich.”
Perhaps no one knows the power of apparel better than theatrical costume designers. On August 17th, Amanda McGee, resident costume designer for The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (“Cincy Shakes”), gave a gallery talk about her designs for the season and new theatre opener, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, September 8-30. (Tickets available online.)
Amanda pointed out the inspiration, materials and color coding she used to visually cue the audience’s understanding of, reaction to and desires for the characters. She divided the play’s characters into 3 categories; the aristocratic-“Lovers”, the “Fairies” of the magic world, the peasant-“Mechanicals”.
The Lovers are costumed in Greco-Roman garb. The story concerns the magical scrambling of two couples’ romances and affections. The audience, however, always knows which pairing to root for by Amanda’s helpful color coding. Helena and Demetrius are in blue, Hermia and Lysander are in pink; thus, visually it looks wrong when the couples are scrambled. Amanda chose mid-century slips and tidy-whities for the intimate scenes, which foiled against the classical overclothes lends a timeless feel to the production. (She explained that Cincy Shakes only uses nudity as an artistic element if it is integral to the story, which is not the case here.)
The Mechanicals are costumed in traditional Elizabethan garb, except that it is made with the iconic fabric of modern day labor—denim. Thus denim-blue is the color cue for the peasants.
Amanda’s fairy aesthetic was inspired by 70s glam rock, epitomized by David Bowie. The costumes are as theatrical as those of that era, and incorporating today’s fibre optic and LED lighting. Titania will be as brightly lit as the moon she’s named for. Amanda derived inspiration for the magic from new age crystals and amethysts in particular—purple is the color Amanda chose to signify magic.
Amanda mentioned that the make up for this production will be robust. Usually, actors play more than one character and their make-up has to multi-task, but in this production actors play only one character, so that their make-up can be completely idiosyncratic.
Amanda ended her talk revealing a secret element that we cannot repeat. Suffice it to say, it is very low tech, but very high maintenance.
A special performance followed the talk. Lutenist Tina Gutierrez, who also is an exhibiting fine art photographer in the gallery’s current exhibit, played instruments hand crafted by her renowned luthier husband, Larry Brown. Tina accompanied tenor vocalist Ryan C. Connelly. They discussed peculiar challenges of the music, choice of instrument, unique tablature and they enthralled us with several pieces, including the song “The Cutpurse” about an Elizabethan pick-pocket, written by an anonymous English composer of the era. Shakespeare mentions cutpurses in several plays; it is interesting that this brand of criminality is so enduringly represented in the artistic production of the time.
For the gallery’s current exhibit, “Midsummer Dreams|We Are Such Stuff,” we selected new work from Tina’s fine art photography portfolio that matched our impression of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Decension,” below, reminded us of the fairy character Puck. Ironically the model is adorned in a purple-ish color and gives an impression in keeping with Amanda’s conception of apt visual cues, similar to her inspiration pins above.