Costume designer Mara Blumenfeld designed two very different productions seen at New York City’s Lincoln Center this fall. The Chicago-based designer is perhaps best known for her collaborations with director Mary Zimmerman, and in fact both Zimmerman and Blumenfeld made their debut at The Metropolitan Opera in September 2007 with a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor (more about that when it returns to The Met repertory in March 2008). Suffice it to say that Blumenfeld well met the challenge of the sheer size of the stage and cast, as well as the broad strokes needed for the costumes to read in so large a house.

On a much smaller scale, she also designed The Glorious Ones, a new musical by Lynn Aherns and Stephen Flaherty based on the commedia dell'arte, a popular form of improvisational theatre that began in Italy in the 15th century, remained popular through to the 18th century, and is still performed today. Directed by Graciela Daniele, The Glorious Ones premiered at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre last April, and is currently on stage at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse theatre (October 11, 2007 to January 6, 2008). The design team also include Dan Ostling (sets), Stephen Strawbridge (lighting), and Stephen Stauffer (sound).

An inside look at the lives and loves of a leading Italian commedia troupe in the late 1500’s, The Glorious Ones features all the stock characters. “These characters were codified, and their masks had very specific features,” says Blumenfeld, who did quite a bit of historical research before beginning to design this “new” commedia troupe, taking into consideration the physical movement demanded of the actors.

“There is a history to the evolution of the commedia costumes,” she adds, pointing out that the colorful diamonds on Harlequin’s costume evolved from the patches on the actor’s own clothes. “In The Glorious Ones, this was worked into the song using a little artistic license.” Other stock characters are Pantalone, always in red with his yellow trademark shoes, while Dottore was in black, with a large doctor bag as a prop specific to this production.

Five of the seven cast members came with the show from Pittsburgh to New York, so some of the same costumes were used, while Blumenfeld welcomed the chance to redesign or fine-tune others. The new costumes were made in New York City at Carelli Costumes. Cory Overcamp of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, made the masks, but as gorgeous as the first set was, the materials started chipping as the masks take quite a beating in the show. “He made a second set for New York by making molds from the first ones. This way he can make multiples. They are now made of neoprene and painted to look like leather,” says Blumenfeld.

Her palette ranges from dirty whites to reds and blacks, and on to earthy hues, including plums, gold, and yellow-greens. “The colors are cheerful and festive, but nothing is a true primary color,” she notes. “It’s almost as if there is a layer of dust on everything. Flaminio, the head of the troupe, and his lady, Columbina, wear fancier clothes, perhaps given to them by a royal patron, yet they have seen better days. The real elegance comes with Isabella, the ethereal young leading lady, who comes from a noble family and appears in icy silver and pale blue, which contrasts with the overall palette, giving her a certain aloofness.

Blumenfeld frequently collaborates with the set designer, Dan Ostling, and says they have an innate sense of each other's work. In this case, Ostling provided a bare wooden stage with rough-hewn planking to create an earthy environment. "This provided a great runway for the clothes," says Blumenfeld, who used the basic stock ingredients then added her own style to the commedia costumes. As she sees it, “The Glorious Ones is not a historical reenactment, but a new look at a specific period and art form.”— – – Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Selected sketches from The Glorious Ones