Trappings and Suits…Beth Merriman on Costuming HAMLET
Beth Merriman always has a change of clothes with her. Granted, it might be a vintage dress that she would like Jennifer Eve Thorn or Debra Wanger to wear onstage, but nevertheless Beth’s bags are usually stuffed with outfits.
As the costume designer for Intrepid’s upcoming production of Hamlet, Beth is used to toting wardrobe with her at all times – at the moment, the pieces in her pocket range from flowing and feminine to military and structured – all reflective the 1930s. This will be the ninth show she has designed for Intrepid, and she admits that one of the best parts is mixing things up with different historical eras. Thankfully, the Bard provides a backdrop against which the design choices at Intrepid have plenty of room for creativity.
While the basic palate for the company’s Shakespeare productions has always been modern,”we’ve started experimenting with different time periods,” says Beth. “It’s always a challenge and I never know what’s going to happen.”
One of her favorite productions to design for was the recently successful A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical, which was set in the doo wop era of the 1960s. Hamlet will be created in a world of the 1930s old Hollywood glamour.
“Christy [Yael, the director] wanted to give it a little bit of a romantic feel,” says Beth. “That Hollywood image really makes the story shine.”
It is an important part of the Intrepid’s mission statement that nothing interfere with the language of the plays – the story is created through the text first, only to be supplemented with production design. In this case, this pre-war era adds to the story, rather than distract the audience’s understanding of it. “We all kind of know Hamlet – vaguely for some people and intimately for some other people,” says Beth. “This design helps make it comfortable for us to go and enjoy the story. We don’t want the costumes to get in the way.”
With the parallels between the Danish royal family and golden-era movie star celebrity, the costuming choices can illuminate the story through the recreation of this familiar period in our history. To dig into this era, Beth had to delve deep into her research books and the internet, picking and choosing images that would help inspire her wardrobe choices. (View Beth’s Pinterest page for Hamlet to see some of her inspiration.)
The choices also help support the idea that this is a closed set – the characters who live in the palace exist apart from the rest of the world and move entirely within in their own circles of influence, free from outside interference. Similarly, the claustrophobic bubble of Hollywood fame can elicit a feeling of isolation that is pertinent to movement of the plot.
The costuming also helps illuminate each character’s journey through this story – the palates changing and shifting with each twist and turn. “We do play with color and we do take each character’s arc in the play into consideration,” says Beth, alluding to the fact that no one really ends up in the same place that he or she started, especially in Hamlet.
To support this, Beth chooses color very carefully. “I always have to check with the set designer beforehand,” she says, in this case referring to talented Sean Fanning. “Since the set is very monochromatic, I wanted brighter colors onstage so that the characters pop a bit.”
Giving life to the canon of Shakespeare plays is always a different experience, depending on the play and the company. Having worked at theaters in Wisconsin, and locally here at The Old Globe and at Asian-American Rep, Beth is happy to have found a creative home working with Intrepid.
“It’s always a challenge and it’s always fun and I get weird texts in the middle of the night,” says Beth. “But Intrepid is a place where I’ve really been able to spread my wings.” – T.T.
Hamlet opens February 2 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas.
Tickets can be purchased here.