Clothed in Controversy: a discussion with Oleanna costumer Jacinda Fischer
In designing costumes for Intrepid’s currently production of Oleanna, Jacinda Fischer only had two challenges on her mind.
The first was power.
“I love the idea of the power struggle between the characters,” says Jacinda. “They both change so much throughout the show… it’s really fun and challenging and interesting to play with that.” David Mamet’s play, known for its lightning fast, often overlapping dialogue as well as for its sudden and dramatic reversals, does its best to leave the audience in a quandary as to whom they are rooting for in the end. This teetering balance is especially treacherous in the capable hands of seasoned actors Francis Gercke and Rachael VanWormer.
Set in the round, Oleanna is three acts with no intermission – truly an 80-minute showdown that begins with what seems to be ‘business as usual’ and ends with the unexpected. Jacinda’s task of portraying these power shifts begin with setting a very impartial stage.
“At the beginning of play, we really want to keep it neutral so that people come in without assumptions,” explains Jacinda. “Then, as things start changing, the biggest challenge is finding that shift in balance without influencing the audience and how they feel about the characters.”
To that end, at the top of Act One, Rachael’s character, Carol, is dressed in pants and a comfortable sweater, typical perhaps of a college student who spends too much time at the library. Fran, as John the professor, dons an academic three-piece suit, also fulfilling an expected idea of how this world of higher education functions. However, Jacinda points out that there is a constant battle between the expected and the assumed, especially when it comes to theatrical dress.
“It’s very difficult to keep things neutral because, even with something as simple as color, people will have an assumption about a person they see based on what they wear, what colors they wear, what type of clothing they wear,” says Jacinda. “So, it’s very important to communicate where the actor’s character is at, and how they are feeling at that point, instead of saying ‘This is what I want the audience to feel when they look at them.'”
Along with input from director Christy Yael and insight from the actors, Jacinda began to form a plan as to how this story would evolve onstage through the costumes. However, there were more than thematic considerations to take into account. There were technical ones as well.
“Because it is set in the round, everything needs to look very clean,” she points out, noting that each seat in the house will offer a different perspective on the players. Plus, each act takes place after significant passages of time, an element which makes the costume changes even more important. While quick changes between scenes are not uncommon for actors, they traditionally happen in the wings off stage and with a lot of assistance.
Not possible with Oleanna. In this play comprised of a continual conversation, the first and only time Fran and Rachael ever leave the stage is after the curtain call.
Which brings us to the second thing that Jacinda had on her mind when designing Oleanna: theater magic.
“The costume changes have to happen onstage, in the dark, in a few seconds,” she says with a mischievous smile.
Challenge accepted. — T.T.
Oleanna plays tonight at 7:30 and runs through Sunday only. Must close April 14. You may purchase tickets here. Clayton E. Liggett Theatre on the campus of San Dieguito Academy, 800 Santa Fe Road in Encintas.