Playwright John Guare has long been fascinated by the odd corners of American history, and in his new play A Few Stout Individuals, he has uncovered one of the oddest. The play looks at the last days of General Ulysses S. Grant, who, senile, dying, and nearly bankrupt, is besieged in his New York townhouse by his wife, children, and various hangers-on (including Mark Twain)—all of whom have a stake in the completion of his memoirs. Meanwhile, Grant drifts in and out of reality, indulging in imaginary conversations with the Emperor and Empress of Japan. The play is a typical Guare, a farcical, fantastic speculation about the way history is written.

The premiere production of A Few Stout Individuals, at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre, was notable for its elegant physical production. Costume designer Gabriel Berry had the unenviable task of dressing 13 actors in period clothing (the play is set in 1885), with changes of costume for some. When asked about any budget challenges, she says, "You betcha. The show always needed to be mostly shopped or rented, with few builds. There wasn’t much money to devote to building costumes." The costume show Studio Rouge built the outfits worn by Mrs. Grant and the first-act bodice worn by Nell, Grant’s daughter, and the frock coat ensemble for Badeu, Grant’s ghostwriter. Berry says, "I like working with Rosi [of Studio Rouge] because she’s flexible and knows how to make built costumes look like they already existed. I work hard on any build to minimize the 'costumey’ look. For me, it has a lot to do with fit and fabric choices."

photo: Susan Johann

Mrs. Grant and Nell each had one skirt for both acts, a choice Berry made for reasons of economy, but which also works for the characters, who are out of money. In fact, Berry’s approach was almost shockingly inexpensive: "Nell wore a skirt that was part of a dress rented from the Costume Collection," the designer says. ""Studio Rouge built her bodice, which was made from $3.50 fabric that I bought from Binny’s Textiles on 40th Street during their going-out-of-business sale—I dyed the fabric and Rosi made the bodice. I bought the blouse from a $5.00 rack at a booth in the weekend garage antique mall on 25th Street. It probably dates from the 1980s. I dyed the blouse and shaped it myself into a more 19th-century shape—a true shirtwaist would have had a complete underbodice structure keeping everything in place. I dyed the blouse myself—and I’m very proud of the color match—and added a lace collar and cuffs. The black beaded capelet she wears was an antique piece I bought for $150 at Greystone Gardens, a great antique clothing store in Pittsfield, MA."

In spite of all this ingenuity, however, Berry adds, the use of one skirt per character "was an expedient measure. Mrs. Grant was a woman who dedicated a lot of energy to her clothing. Pictures of her taken around this time show her in a series of elaborate ensembles. We wanted her clothes to have a slightly worn quality, to indicate the family’s financial straits, but that’s a theatrical choice, not in the least substantiated by how she apparently dressed in this period. In a more perfect costume production universe, Mrs. Grant would have two complete ensembles, as would Nell."

In addition, Berry’s costumes for the male characters were quite detailed. Again, she says, "The clothes are a combination of contemporary purchased items, rented and borrowed stuff, and Badeau’s ensemble, which was built, since I wanted that character to be the glossiest and best-dressed. Again, Studio Rouge has a genius tailor. He built the suit quickly and it looks vintage to me." Overall, she says, "The silhouettes are not really authentic, in most cases. Most of the time, I am just nodding towards the period line. Real period stuff has a much tighter look and seems quaint to modern eyes, I think. And this is a play, not a costume exhibition."

photo: Susan Johann

Directed by Michael Greif, with scenery by Allen Moyer, lighting by Jim Vermeulen, and sound by David Van Tieghem, A Few Stout Individuals ran until mid-June. Having created 19th-century Americana on a budget, Berry moves on to new eras and challenges: among her upcoming projects are Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci at Glimmerglass Opera and Mercy, the new performance piece by Meredith Monk, which will be seen this fall at the Next Wave Festival at Brooklyn Academy of Music. However, Berry recalls her Guare experience fondly: "I think Signature Theatre is a remarkable institution. I don’t think, as a theatre community, we cherish our playwrights enough. The chance to work on a brand-new John Guare play in an intimate space with a great director, an awesome cast, and wonderful, hard-working and ingenious fellow designers was an exhausting delight."