Arena Stage’s newest world premiere by Ken Ludwig, Baskerville, is a rollicking comedy where 3 actors play 30+ characters in a jam-packed 2 hours of farcical fun. Heading to the back offices of Arena, I met with Jess Goldstein, whose role as Costume Designer for Baskerville tasked him with creating literally dozens of designs for this show. He kindly opened his sketchbook to me, and now to you, so we could get a peek into his Victorian stylings and get a closer look at how he expresses character through costume.
Alan Katz: Tell us a bit about your personal history.
Jess Goldstein: I graduated from Yale in 1978 and moved to New York. I was actually very fortunate to start designing immediately. One of the first things I did was the original off Broadway run of the Sam Shepard play Buried Child which won the Pulitzer that year. Then I started working at Off Broadway places like Playwright’s Horizons and Manhattan Theater Club when they were just starting out. I started doing regional theater, including at Arena Stage with Tintypes, a beautiful piece with 5 actors and music from the turn of the century, American Victorian types. It was very popular, which was wonderful.
I just went from there, working pretty consistently. I’ve done about 35 Broadway productions so far. The big hits are Jersey Boys and the Disney musical Newsies, which we just sent out a national tour [It plays at The National Theatre June 9 – 29].
My most recent work is on On the Town a Leonard Bernstein revival, which is one of the most joyous pieces I’ve worked on. I’m very proud of it. I’m mentioning the musicals because that’s what people know, but I’ve also worked on original plays like Proof, Love! Valour! Compassion! and How I Learned to Drive.
What are the big design challenges with Baskerville where there are 2 main characters, then 3 actors playing 30 odd characters?
Well, it’s very challenging. It’s a farce, Ken Ludwig’s comic take on The Hound of the Baskervilles, the whole legend of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the mysteries they were involved with. The play is rapidly paced, with many many characters and a purposefully convoluted plot that gets solved. There’s an intentional part of the piece that audiences almost can’t keep up with it. Lots of red herrings throughout the story. So it had some inherent problems from a costuming perspective when I sat down to design it. One page to the next an actor would be changing characters and this would happen all the time. So clearly we had figure out what the style is: how do we establish these characters visually?
The director Amanda Dehnert said something very smart; it can be a positive thing to find different ways to do it. Sometimes it is a complete change, or changing the wig and maybe the facial hair, changing everything. Sometimes it will be simply changing a hat or spectacles. It was actually a good thing to not be consistent with it, because then the costuming and character changes won’t be predictable for the audience. But it’s tricky.
For the director, it is especially hard for them to make costuming decisions without getting into rehearsal with the actors. We gave them rehearsal clothes to try out, but when you get into the space, you figure out that certain things have to work certain ways, given the travel and changing times that the actor deals with and the pace of the play. It’s hard to know. The audience is a major factor in figuring out what works, what’s funny and what’s doable.
One of the biggest jobs of the costume designer is telling the story. Sometimes designing is about making pretty dresses, but here designing is really about making the audience see what we want them to see, what the playwright is telling them to see. In film, the camera can do that work by zooming in, but in theater the actor, the lighting, and the costume designer can do that. Saying “this is a new character” or “This is a clue to who this character is” or “This is where the character is going.”
A lot of this applies to the peripheral characters?
Well, some of them aren’t peripheral, they can be very important to the storytelling. As a designer I love to get the actors’ input. We have brilliant actors, all 5 of them. It was particularly helpful that the 3 who are playing all these characters are very aware of where they had to be from moment to moment. It was hard for me to keep up with the script. They were able to say where they had time to do a bigger change or when it had to be quick. So they were essential to the process.
The play is set around 1900. Victorian England. I’ve done many plays from that period, so I didn’t have to do a lot of research of the time. I looked at the visuals from the famous Basil Rathbone movies to get an idea of the classic Sherlock Holmes look. Of course, there have been many recent adaptations. Some are modern dress, some are period. Those period ones tweak it quite a bit. We do that here. We base it in the period, but the changes are so fast, we have to keep it simple, not only to put on but for the audience to take in. They often have to be, in a good way, a cliché of who the character is. For example, we have a butler and his wife in a mansion on the moors. Very much based on the Hollywood clichés of Mrs. Danvers and the evil butler. They’re wearing black, very severe looking. That’s the fun of it. Before they say anything, they come out and the audience can feel clever in recognizing the character type immediately.
Jane Pfitsch plays 2 nurses. The first is Nurse Malloy, who is this beautiful ethereal version of a nurse, then later on she plays Nurse MacKeeble, who is a screeching harridan of a character. She wears the same uniform, but we changed the apron, the wig and the hat. But that subtle change helps create a totally different character.
What about Sherlock Holmes specifically, since there are so many preconceptions about the character?
I think of him, before I even worked on this play, as very elegant, an intellectual with a visual flair to him. He looks like an English version of the Arrow Collar Man, an English turn-of-the-century version of preppy good looks. Sartorially elegant and beautiful, well-chosen clothes. Kind of tweedy, more than businessman look. He only has one suit, one costume throughout the play, even though the play takes place over many days. It would get confusing if people who didn’t need to change costumes changed costumes. He does have a beautiful dressing gown that he wears over his suit at Baker Street.
I thought it would be interesting to do his suit, which we had custom made for him, in an unusual set of colors. The suit is an off-beat green, with an odd check pattern that looks like a graph. That indicates someone with an analytical mind. The green was a nice color for Gregory Wooddell, who could pull off any color, let me say,, but a little bit quirky in terms of color. The vest is a rosy pink, kind of a mauve. They’re odd colors and odd in combination. Not something distracting, but he looks like someone unusual, not your typical Englishman.
Dr. Watson is a little more traditional. A little natty. Lucas Hall, who plays Watson, is an incredibly handsome guy. Both he and Gregory could be models! Lucas is in a slate blue, greyish blue, 3 piece suit. More conservative. With a bowtie, which is getting more popular now. His hat is a newsboy cap, which is how Watson is usually seen. Visually, they have to be the least interesting characters because they have to be who they are through many different situations.
What sort of emotions are you looking to inspire with these designs?
Jan 16 – Feb 22
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 202-488-3300
One last thing. I’m interested in the iconic costume pieces for Sherlock.
Oh, I’m glad you brought that up. There’s the deerstalker hat and the Inverness cape with all the plaid and capelets. Amanda decided she didn’t want the deerstalker, but, being a traditionalist, I bought one anyway just in case. But we haven’t used it yet, and we’re in tech. You know, she said something very interesting, that the original Sherlock stories don’t have the hat written in them at all, they’re the invention of a later illustrator. That’s how it got connected with him.
Is there an iconic costume piece for this show?
I don’t think there is one. That’s exactly what we’re trying to not do. What we’ve tried to do is give him a fresh look, fresh color. Not that the color is the most amazing green you’ve ever seen, but it is this particular color of green. I couldn’t even put a name on it. The vest, too. A pink, mauve, rose. That’s what I like about it, the color, like the character is unnameable, but particular and indescribable. It was an intuitive thing, I didn’t realize it until this moment. These are complex colors for a complex character.