New York’s Atlantic Theatre Company has earned its identity for its crisp, contemporary acting style and its stable of living, breathing playwrights, but occasionally the company takes a flyer on a period piece, with interesting results. This season, the Atlantic resurrected Hobson’s Choice, a British regional repertory favorite that is rarely seen here. (Americans, if they know it at all, have seen the 1954 film with Charles Laughton, or the short-lived 1966 musical version, Walking Happy.) Set in Salford, a suburb of Manchester, England, in 1880, the play is a comic inversion of King Lear, in which the father, owner of a boot shop, is a drunken skinflint beset by a trio of brisk, unsentimental Cordelias. The Atlantic production provided a fitting debut for actress Martha Plimpton, making her adult New York stage debut as Maggie, a 30–ish Manchester spinster who leads the revolt, by marrying her father’s best bootmaker and going into business for herself. In addition, the costume designs of Laura Bauer provide a sterling lesson in how to dress a large period play on a small budget.
Bauer says that the assignment posed two major challenges. "You have to realize all the parts that go into [each costume]" she says. "All the girls have boots, stockings, garter belts, bustles, cages for their bustles, bodices, and petticoats," not to mention bags, gloves, and boots. Even for a brief appearance in sleeping clothes, she adds, Plimpton needed a petticoat, camisole, and mobcap to be correctly dressed. (For that matter, actress Judith Roberts, who appears briefly in one scene as a fashionable lady, required a fully turned-out costume). Further complicating Bauer’s task was the play’s narrative, in which characters undergo major life changes over a period of more than a year. "When I read the play," she recalls, "I thought, we’ll keep it simple. But there’s no way around the fact that a year passes by and Martha needs four changes." Given these indisputable facts, the designer used all her creativity, and her contacts, to pull together the show’s extensive wardrobe.
Bauer’s took a multitrack approach, building some costumes and renting others. The designer, who also works in film (Sweet and Lowdown, High Fidelity), did a Warner Bros. TV series in 2000 titled Dead Last, so she called on the studio for rental assistance. "The people at Warner Bros. are really nice and they have a fondness for theatre," says the designer, who adds that the studio was a good resource when it came to getting period items such as bustles. "Hartford Stage was very helpful, too," she adds. Some rental costumes were significantly reworked. For example, Maggie Hobson’s Act I dress featured a tailored blouse and a skirt with a drape overlaid on it. "The skirt was part of a suit from Warner Bros. and we added the drape," Bauer says, who wanted to the outfit to look as if it had been assembled by Maggie from items in her wardrobe.
Bauer’s costume also played a crucial role in tracking the changes in the characters’ lives. Maggie’s two sisters, Alice and Vickey, flee the family coop to get married. Alice reappears as the very model of garish respectability, with a flowery blue-green dress topped by a hideous bright green cape ("You can’t believe that color," laughs Bauer, adding that the cape is an original period item), topped with a feathered black hat. Vickey, on the other hand, is the height of Victorian fashion, in a red dress complete with bustle, draped side panels, and plenty of ruffles on the front of the skirt; a plumed hat completes her ensemble.
Many of the men’s suits were built. "They’re hard to find," says Bauer, "because an average men’s suit size in that time was a 36; now, a 42 would be average," and because real period suits are cut along lines that don’t closely match modern actors' physiques. She does, however, pull off a neat gag when Willie Mossop, Maggie’s intended, first appears onstage apparently dressed in a suit. He later removes the coat, and you see that he is, in fact, wearing a Henley undershirt, with a dickey and detachable cuffs creating the illusion of a dress shirt. Bauer adds that all men’s shirts in the production do come with detachable collars, a standard feature of the period.
Above all, Bauer stresses, it’s the details that matter. When Brian Murray, cast as the tyrannical Hobson, makes ready to hit the local pub, he wears a topcoat and a black hat, with a distinctive ornament. "It’s a boar’s-bristle brush, set in a little sterling base on a pin. It’s the little things—even if the audience never sees it, it makes the actor feel like that character."
Bauer’s associate on the project was Bobby Frederick Tilley. The two are co-designers on their next project, the play Further From the Furthest Thing, now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club. Hobson’s Choice also featured scenery by Derek McLane, lighting by Kenneth Posner, and sound by Fitz Patton. The director was David Warren. The happy beneficiary of approving reviews, Hobson’s Choice ran at the Atlantic through February 10.
Photos: © Joan Marcus