Boston's Lyric Stage Company production of See What I Wanna See, written by Michael John LaChiusa, just wrapped last month. The musical deals with love, betrayal, murder, and a questioning of faith that traverses medieval Japan, 1950s New York City, and the tragedy of 9/11 — all in two acts and with a very stark, minimalist set that lets the costumes do the talking.
Costume designer Rafael Jaen dressed lead characters Kesa and Morito in elaborate kimonos heavily influenced by medieval Japan. Kesa's cool tones — with images of birds and peacocks — set the color palette for Act 1, while Morito's warmer shades with tigers and dragons set the tone for Act 2, which is based on Ryunouke Akutagawa's short story “The Dragon.”
The printed part of each kimono was cotton that could easily be cleaned between performances. All the trains were silk satin, providing a balance of shine and matte. “I liked the idea of using the color palette of Kesa and Morito to inform each act because I needed to find a way to keep it visually cohesive, and it was one way to create a nice arc of color and movement,” says Jaen. The musical is centered on a lot of movement with choreographed fight and dance scenes, so the costumes had to facilitate mobility without compromising the design scheme.
In doing research for scenes set in 1950s Central Park, Jaen found a vintage Christian Dior dress with interesting folds resembling origami that would become The Wife's dress. He modified it by adding airbrushed accents. “The colors of The Wife closely mirror some of the colors of Kesa to create this visual parallel,'' Jaen notes. “Even though we're changing — we're in a different period in a different city — visually, it still made sense.”
Another character in Act 2, The CPA, gives up his job to undergo a spiritual quest in present-day Central Park and is described in the script as wearing a dashiki shirt. “The dashiki is similar to certain fabrics worn by African priests during religious ceremonies,” Jaen explains. “It became a ritualistic accessory, just as he became a sort of spiritual warrior living in the park.” Jaen took inspiration from different trees and emulated those textures, saying, “I thought of the things you might find in Central Park — bones from critters, feathers from birds — and we found a fabric that looked like tree bark and some other fabrics that looked almost like Spanish moss.” He then attached feathers, beads, and bones to the ceremonial costume, with the tie from The CPA's former identity becoming a head wrap.
Jaen is author of Developing and Maintaining a Design-Tech Portfolio, published by Focal Press.