Clare Booth Luce's The Women may not be 100% politically correct--its portrayal of the so-called gentle gender is far more tart than sweet--but the recent production of the 1936 play at Washington, DC's Arena Stage seduced even the most PC audiences, like a dazzlingly beautiful, tough-talking, wisecracking femme fatale.
Luce's story follows the internal workings of a group of women in the high-style, moneyed world of the 1930s New York City elite. And if, as director Kyle Donnelly has said, the play's greatest strength is "its bitchy sense of humor and its no-holds-barred viciousness," then the Arena production's greatest strength lay in Donnelly and her creative team's ability to not only recognize this, but to celebrate it and to encourage audiences to eschew their 90s postures and sentiments, to embrace these manipulative women, and to--in her words--"revel in their machinations."
In many ways the production was as much about clothes as it was about power: the power of clothes, clothing as power. "How glamorous these women look is of paramount importance," Donnelly has said. And while the in-the-round Fichandler Theatre, in which the audience was virtually amid the action, naturally brought the set and costumes into sharp focus, costume designer Paul Tazewell and set designer Thomas Lynch took their concepts of style to another level. Shapes and furniture emerged from Lynch's sumptuous, high Art Deco set, propelling the action to its heady conclusion. Tazewell's costumes didn't just suit the characters; they helped to define them and traced their trajectory through the play.
Although Donnelly cast all women, "there was an element of the drag idea that interested her," recalls costume designer Paul Tazewell. "It was this idea of facade, which synthesized itself down to being kind of a Hollywood facade, where many American women got their sense of glamour and style in that period." Like Hollywood, the world of The Women is beautiful but backstabbing, outwardly friendly but inwardly false. It's a jungle in there.
Once the Hollywood concept was established, says Tazewell, "the door was open for it to be as out there as possible and not feel that I had to stick to a natural or realistic scale in either choices of color or the silhouette."
Tazewell and Lynch decided to art-direct the play as they might have a film. Because capturing the black-and-white look of the films of the period in which the play takes place was not feasible--"You can't really get to the subtlety of everything, even the skin tones being some shade of gray," Tazewell points out--the designers decided to color-coordinate each scene. They found inspiration in the vivid Technicolor flicks of the 1950s.
"We identified the pervading color that spoke of each scene," says the costume designer. Then they integrated that color into the sets, costumes, lighting, props, jewelry, shoes...you name it. For the play's opening scene, for instance, which takes place in the living room of the lead character, Mary, the designers chose Wedgwood blue, which evokes upper-crust coolness and polish, but is not without a warm undercurrent. Nancy Schertler's lighting picked out the blue in Lynch's multicolor flooring, and Tazewell dressed the women in chic, somewhat true-to-period suits in blues and grays. Black and yellow accents--in hats and other accessories--provided highlights and shading.
That scene quickly morphs into the next, a humorous little interlude that takes place in a trendy salon. Again, the set and costumes were seamless. A silver chair and hair-dryer contraption, which resembled nothing so much as an electric chair, worked perfectly with the white-and-silver-uniformed salon staffers, all of whom sported identical platinum-blond curls.
These two scenes together were among Tazewell's favorites, as was the evening's finale--an evening gown-clad cat fight in a casino. The dresses in this last scene were so sumptuous--beaded bodices, feathers, and shimmering metallic numbers abound--you would've sworn they stepped right off the pages of Vogue, where Luce, coincidentally, began her career as a caption writer.
"It builds and then there's a big payoff," muses Tazewell. "It's structured that way. You start off in day clothes and go into evening. Once you're in Mary's boudoir [the penultimate scene], you think the story is done. She's OK where she is. She's in her nightgown. She's in bed. And then she gets more information--and here we go into this casino room, with all these women in glamorous dresses, and then Mary comes in in her red dress. It really hits the height you hope it will. You feel like it's never-ending, like there's all this abundance. That feels good for me."
Like many of the other costumes in the production, the styles in this scene were late-30s haute couture, filtered through the designer's 90s sensibility. Audiences may have detected a dose of Elsa Schiaparelli, a whimsical designer of the 1920s who was pals with surrealist artist Salvador Dali, as well as hints of Dior's, Galliano's, or Gaultier's current lines. "Made-up things, really," says Tazewell. "I didn't worry so much about trying to achingly make it late 30s. It has the flavor of the 30s, and then a lot of Paul in it."
The Women ran from January 16 through March at Arena Stage. Sound design was by Rob Milburn.