"Remember this, Paula--there will be actresses when husbands are a thing of the past." So declares the positively punctilious and delightfully domineering Mrs. Pampinelli near the end of The Torch-Bearers, the 1922 George Kelly play that just enjoyed a sold-out run at New York's Greenwich House Theatre, courtesy of the Drama Dept. This rarely seen play depicts the ill-fated production of a bumbling community theatre troupe at its most farcical, and includes a disastrous play-within-the-play called One of Those Things in the second act (think Noises Off). Costume designers Jonathan Bixby and Gregory A. Gale had a bit of fun with some over-the-top costumes for the play-within-the-play, and then played it straight, but with great flair, for the rest of the farce.
Bixby, Gale, and director Dylan Baker wanted to avoid, as Bixby explains it, "the traditional 1920s look, which came later in the decade. This was written in the early 20s, so we kept a very early silhouette with a dropped waist, but it's still quite long. We didn't want it to seep into the show-bizzy 20s; we wanted a 20s feeling, but the play is set in the suburbs, you know, outside of Philadelphia or a city like that, and we wanted to be sure it still had that provincial quality to it."
Gale was responsible for the extensive research. As Bixby notes, "He always spots something that is fresh. It's been just a marvelous, fruitful relationship. I made sketches and he says, what about this, let's correct this. Greg loves to do the research. He loves to go to the library; he loves all of that."
As Mrs. Pampinelli, the director of her acting neophytes, Marian Seldes grand-dames it across the stage of Greenwich House, swooping into the living room of her acting disciple, the decidedly ungifted Mrs. Ritter (Faith Prince), in a long, drop-waisted, belted dress. The dress features an off-center strip of fabric that goes down one side of the dress, up around the neck, and back down into a point just below the other shoulder; Bixby describes this patterned piece as "little trellis patterns, very arts-and-crafts, with little roses." Constructed out of wool lawn, the dress is, as Bixby puts it, "a very funny little olive color. It's not what you would traditionally think of as a lovely color." Worn over it is a cape made from an old paisley tapestry that Bixby came across. "I think it's very funny," he says. "It suggests she's one of those ladies who toured Europe at the turn of the century, visited Venice, and has returned saying, 'I've seen the Masters.' And now she sees herself as an artist."
Mrs. Pampinelli stands in sharp contrast to the sympathetic Mrs. Ritter, who, says Bixby, "has to be absolutely lovely or the audience can't root for her. And when we see she is such a bad actress, so horrible in the staged play, we still need to feel for her." In Act One, he dressed Prince in a four-ply-weight teal blue dress with charmeuse trim. Her costume for One of Those Things was a ridiculously loud red number with gigantic hat and huge bustle on the skirt. Her final costume was a stunning straight gray skirt and sheer overgown ("The most gossamer, teeny-tiny little sheerest silk I've ever seen in my life," says Bixby) that hooks in front. It is worn over a beautiful embroidered lace blouse. The embroidery is actually gold and silver wire mixed "so it has a real muted color to it."
For the wealthy Mrs. Nelly Fell, who serves as prompter for One of Those Things, Bixby dressed actress Joan Copeland in a variety of fabulous numbers. Her wardrobe included a beautiful rust paisley velvet coat with fox collar in Act One and a black coat with white collar and bell sleeves lined in white. Because she is quite the lady, Bixby gave her plenty of hats that she never takes off. One of her most fun pieces is a jaunty velvet hat with a pleated fan attached to one side. Says Bixby, "It really tells you something about her life outside of the play. You know she sat in front of a mirror and had to put this on and positioned it in a certain way. She spent time at the milliner's shop picking out the color. It tells you that she is a very complicated gal."
As for the men, well, according to Bixby, "They always suffer," meaning that their outfits, while still comical, were pulled from the Drama Dept.'s existing collection. The women's clothes were built by Euroco Costumes NYC, Carelli Costumes NYC, and Jennifer Love Costumes NYC. Millinery was by Thomas Schneider, with hair provided by Elsen Associates Inc. and David Lawrence. Patricia Peek oversaw all hair and wigs, and Clinton Cargill and Jen McGlashin served as wardrobe master and mistress respectively. Many of the shoes came from Peter Fox.
In a further testament to the designers' skill, Bixby's paintings of a couple of the costumes were raffled off ($5 per raffle) to raise money for the theatre's renovation. And the ultimate kudo: Bixby's painting of Mrs. Pampinelli's "funny" dress served as the black-and-white program's cover design.