Cat's Pajamas

April 2001--Mac Wellman's Cat's-Paw, which recently ran at downtown Manhattan's Soho Rep, is a response to the tale of the legendary figure Don Juan that looks at the woman's perspective. Each of the three adult women (Hildegard Bub, her daughter, Jane Bub, and Jane's friend Jo Rudge) of the four–character play (the fourth is Jo's daughter Lindsay Rudge) has had her "Caracas" or her "Bermuda" or her "Singapore," the place in which a betrayal of the heart occurred—exactly what happened is never explained and the men are rarely explicitly referred to (though Jo calls her daughter's absent father a "snake"). Lindsay, who has not yet experienced her place-name-to-be-determined betrayal (and who thinks she is above such an experience), is a dismissive smart-alecky girl who sneers at her mother's emphasis on the heart, goodness, and generosity, declaring "America hates the weak, Mother, because they are weak."

Now, the experimental Wellman is not necessarily the most accessible of playwrights, and costume designer Robin I. Shane had never worked on or seen a Wellman piece, though she was familiar with his work. She says she found the text "very accessible" and focused on the theme of relationships (mother to daughter, friend to friend) and brought a little of her own experience to bear on the reading. Explains Shane, "I'm getting married next year and my relationship with my mother is changing, so I found the whole experience—what he talks about in the play—interesting."

The starting point of the costume design came from director Daniel Aukin, who presented Shane, a 1999 graduate of New York University's MFA design for theatre and film program, with a book on color theory. He explained that he was interested in the retinal after-image, which occurs when you stare at one color for a long time and then look at a white background. You should see the opposite color of the one you first stared at.

And she also approached the experimental play as she would any other, gleaning character clues from what was there: there's a reference to Jane's tendency to dress like a man, to Hildegard's being from Des Moines, to Jo's having had a "hippie" past—she's a "faded liberal," according to the bratty daughter, and so on. And she also worked with the play's four settings: the observation decks of the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center, the interior of the Statue of Liberty's torch, and the Federal Superior Court in lower Manhattan.

But in incorporating Aukin's interest in color theory and working with a playwright whose language and situation are eccentric to say the least, Shane came up with a wonderfully conceived and executed costume design that was realistic yet conceptual: as the scenes changed, each character appeared in the same contemporary designs but in a different base and accent color. The first is a red scene, the second green, the third blue, and the fourth gray and black and white.

Jane, the "mannish" businesswoman, for instance, generally wore raincoats, scarves, and slacks. In the first scene she was clad in a red raincoat (with mauve undertones), a long fringed red scarf, wine-colored pants, and a red neck scarf. Hildegard too was dressed in red, but in a style that was more in keeping with her age. Shane dressed her in a red coat, red shoes, and a red-and-white kerchief.

For the next scene, the green one, Jane was dressed identically save the color palette: she donned a green raincoat, a mint-green scarf, and green pants, and she tied an aqua kerchief around her neck. Jo, who joined Jane in scene two, was dressed in a hunter-green cape, green jeans, and a green sweater. Jo is also in the third scene—the blue scene—with daughter Lindsay (in a schoolgirl uniform look). Here Jo wore an outfit identical to the one in scene two, but the cape, jeans and sweater were in shades of blue.

This idea was one that, as Shane points out, wasn't "exactly coming from the text but wasn't working against the text either."

Shane was less concerned with an exact explanation for each color choice, but she notes, "People who saw it said, 'Oh, yeah, I know why that was a blue scene. It was because they were looking out from the Statue of Liberty and seeing the blue of the water and the sky.' And in the first scene, the red scene, they do talk about blood, and the mother and daughter are related by blood. And then I wanted to go completely opposite to that, playing on the retinal after-image, so the next scene was green. And there is a little bit of jealousy in that scene. And then Daniel and I agreed that the last scene should be in black and white and gray because the federal office building is a drab place. And I also wanted to give the eyes a rest. Because we had all this vibrancy, I wanted to cleanse the palette, as it were, of the eyes and to ground us. The other scenes were in high lofty places, and we were now in a realistic place. The scene is very realistic and quite different from the others."

The choice of colors was ultimately, as Shane says, "intuitive." It was also somewhat fortuitous. LD Michael O'Connor, who generally kept color to a minimum, doused the beginning of scenes two and three with green and blue, respectively; Shane had designed her second and third scenes in the corresponding colors independent of O'Connor. Says Shane, "It was one of those happy accidents that happen in theatre."

The designer's main challenge, however, was finding the same garments in the two, sometimes even three, colors she needed. So she shopped—she shopped on 34th Street (at Conway and "those other fly-by-night stores"); H & M, a store for the frugal but trendy; and the upscale discount store Daffy's, which sells designer merchandise at lower prices. Shoes were purchased at Payless, and then painted the appropriate color. "I shopped it all," Shane says. "The budget was $800; I think I spent $799.34. So I came in under budget—barely."

Shane's creations stood in contrast to Kyle Chepulis' remarkable all-white set. It consisted of a stage floor and ceiling (no side walls) that played with perspective by narrowing as it went further back. As the actors walked upstage, they appeared taller since the ceiling was designed to be lower in the back. It made for an impressive preshow experience: the minimal preshow lighting made it appear as though the set went on and on into the darkness of Soho Rep.

If color affects or creates emotion, organizing the color-coded show certainly affected the designer's psyche. She says, "I wanted everything to be within the color scheme. Jo and Lindsay eat candies in the third scene, and during rehearsal they were eating yellow ones or green Starbursts. And I went so crazy with it that I went out and bought five big bags of Starburst, and it happens that in the multi packs they come in purple. So I was picking out the purple candies, so that they could use them in the scene. I am sure no one noticed, but if they had all of a sudden shown up with a yellow one, I think it would have been jarring. Then there were metal cutters were supposed to be painted [for the gray scene]; it never happened, so they ended up being red, which drove me crazy every moment."

Cat's-Paw ended its run in January. Sound design was by Colin Hodges with technical direction by Steven Katz.

Top photo: Paula Court.
Bottom photo: Robin I. Shane.