Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Little Foxes at Asolo Rep

When I heard that Asolo Rep's season included Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes," I emitted a sigh. Why stage a revival when there's so much great contemporary theater? But when I'm wrong, I'll be the first to admit it (at least in the context of theater). The production is riveting.

Dorrit and I had the chance to preview the production through the eyes of costume designer Tracy Dorman. It was a fascinating peek into the way one aspect of the show moved from the page to the stage.

Sketch for Regina
Dorman began, not surprisingly, with a careful reading of the script. But the way she read it is different than the way you or I would. Yes, she was looking for themes and paying attention to the plot. But she also created a breakdown of characters in each scene and kept track of how many costume changes would be required. Once that was done, she researched images and started creating a collage board of fabrics and sketches.

But designers don't go off and develop their work in a vacuum. The process is collaborative, with the director and the costume, set and lighting designers all working together to present an integrated performance. At each stage of the process, Dorman shared her work with the rest of the team (sometimes through the wonder of Skype). The end result was striking.

"The Little Foxes" is set at the turn of the 20th century. It was a time when women had limited options. All of the female characters' costumes are corseted, with their ability to move freely limited in a way that echoes societal constrictions. Dorman noted that the actresses wear corsets and bum pads during the performances rather than just looking as if they do. (She also shared that the women wore costumes during multiple rehearsals because negotiating stairs in the gowns was difficult -- as was sitting without tipping forward.)

Costumes for Alexandra and Birdie
Each woman's costume reflects her personality. Regina--our protagonist--is ambitious and eager to leave the South for the sophistication and excitement of Chicago. But she doesn't have enough money to do so. Her parents left their wealth--and the family business--to her two brothers when they died. She views the prospective business deal we learn about in the first act as her opportunity to become truly rich. Regina's striving is captured by a wardrobe of tailored dresses that shows off her figure.  This is one way to get the attention of her prospective business partner.

Birdie, Regina's sister-in-law, is a free spirit who longs for the old days of the gracious South. Her dresses are less fashion-forward than Regina's and harken back to the styles of the late 19th century. Dornan noted the "fluttery quality" of the fabrics she chose for Birdie that mimic her flightiness.

Alexandra, who is Regina's daughter, is closer to her aunt than her mother. Her costumes blend the two women's styles.

Dorman with Addie's
Dorman's attention to detail is meticulous. Addie, the family maid, plays an important role in the household. In some ways she is the moral center of the play, and Dornan wanted her costume to reflect her dignity and grace. She too is corseted and wears low heels to make her appearance similar to that of the people for whom she works. She also wears earrings, a reflection of the fact that she has some discretionary income.

Dorman commented that costume design at the Asolo is like "an old world craft." The costumes are all hand made, and Dorman likened each finished product to a jewel. She clearly relishes the time that goes into designing the costumes for a play compared to the "assembly line" of television. (Dornan worked for three years on "As the World Turns," winning an Emmy for her work in 2007.)  To learn more about Dornan and her work, click here.

As always, having some insight into the production made me enjoy "The Little Foxes" all the more.  The show runs through April 15, and I couldn't recommend it more highly. If you do go, get there early to peruse the program. It's full of great information about Hellman's play and the period in which it is set. Better yet, get there an hour before the show and you can get "the scoop" with one of the cast members. It's all part of the Asolo's desire to provide a deeper theater experience for its audiences.

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