When the Shakespeare Theatre’s costume department saw the designs for the company’s production of the flamboyant 1962 musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the team realized it would have to use entirely new skills — particularly when it came to the feathery marabou trim.
“We would never be making gold stretch sequin panties for Lady Bracknell,” draper Randall Exton says. “So it has been a huge educational experience.”
The musical, inspired by the farces of ancient Roman playwright Plautus, employs classic slapstick, mistaken identity and puns to tell the story of a clever slave named Pseudolus, who tries to earn his freedom by helping his master, Hero, win the affection of a virgin in a house of courtesans. The scenes are punctuated by vaudeville-style songs written by Stephen Sondheim — you’ve probably heard the most famous one, “Comedy Tonight.” To underscore the showbiz theme, costume designer David C. Woolard dreamed up some glitzy attire for the cast of courtesans, noblemen and slaves, and the costume department’s drapers made his designs a reality.
“A lot of the inspiration came from a lot of classic movies of the ’40s, where it’s like, the big, overblown Hollywood extravaganza . . . [the] glorified version of ancient Rome,” Exton says.
The costume process began about six weeks ago, when Woolard presented his vision to director Alan Paul. Then Woolard showed his designs to the costume team, who priced out materials and fit test versions on the actors. In the past few weeks, they’ve been busy putting the final touches on the togas, gladiator breastplates and showgirl costumes, all amid a heap of sparkly fabric, hand-crafted feathers and gumball-size fake pearls. It’s about as flashy as things get in the STC costume shop.
“It’s so very different from what we normally do,” Exton says. “I’m hoping that doing this production of ‘Forum’ is going to shake up the image that people have of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. We can do a crazy, over-the-top musical and still keep our same production standards and values that everyone expects when they come to see a Shakespeare show.”
Exton led us through the creation of two costumes, for the characters Vibrata and Miles Gloriosus. They came together thanks to a melange of unusual ingredients, including air-conditioning foam, weed wacker cord and plastic pink flamingos — not to mention plenty of vodka (but not in the manner you might think).
Each of the courtesans in the house of Marcus Lycus has themed attire. Panacea, with her clamshell bra and pearl adornments, evokes a mermaid. Tintinabula’s metallic costume and bells make her look like a bronze goddess. And Vibrata, with her tiger-and-flamingo getup, is the exotic, wild courtesan — “jungle fantasy,” Exton says. Most of the more than 100 feathers in her showgirl-like costume are handmade from fabric.
“The real feathers will begin to wilt a little bit — they’re not as durable,” Exton says. “That’s why we’re only using them sparingly.”
He and his assistants worked more than 16 hours on the feathers alone, which were made of different colors and weights of fabric, as well as fishing wire and weed wacker cord, to give them a spine. The larger tailfeathers are anchored into actress Lisa Karlin’s shorts with a snap-in panel. Vibrata’s hat is a deconstructed lawn flamingo.
Because the costumes are so delicate, they can’t be laundered often — especially on days with two shows. The secret to keeping them fresh? That’s where the cheap vodka comes in. When sprayed on the costumes, it kills germs and dries quickly.
This character, played by Edward Watts, is a boastful, powerful soldier who is betrothed to Philia, Hero’s love interest. He wears a soldier’s tunic with a gold-painted breastplate molded in the shape of washboard abs, complete with a lion crest. He’s good looking and strong, and knows it. In “Bring Me My Bride,” the soldiers sing to him, “Look at those eyes, cunning and keen / Look at the size of those thighs, like a mighty machine!” So the costume department built him enhanced thigh and calf muscles.
“It’s essentially industrial air-conditioning foam, which is layered up and sculpted to create musculature, then fit on the actor to where his muscles are, stitched in place and covered with a flesh-covered skin,” says Exton, who adds that it’s not the most comfortable thing to wear. “It is very warm.”
Thursday through Jan. 5 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. $20-$115. 202-547-1122. www.shakespearetheatre.org.