Fashion is not mere adornment in A Free Man of Color. The play begins with its main character, Jacques Cornet, poetically reciting, "All men equal? Clothes tell the ranks / I have taste. For that I give my daily thanks." Or as Lynn Bowling, the Wardrobe Supervisor at Lincoln Center Theater, puts it: "Costume conveys more than character in this show. It's also narrative: the clothing tells half the story of the play." I would add: Halloween this year had nothing on the spectacular sartorial parade taking place 8 times a week at the Vivian Beaumont.
But assigning the clothing meaning is one thing; taking care of the fashion is quite another. When I met up with Bowling one afternoon this week backstage, he was applying needle and thread to one of the shirts worn by the character Orphee, played by Esau Pritchett. Nearby, one of the production's 11 dressers was ironing a garment; down the hall, someone was else was laundering energetically.
Why so many dressers for a show that has "only" 26 regular actors? Well, for one thing, said Bowling, "a lot of the performers play more than one role," which increases the number of costumes. For another, "most of the clothing changes between scenes take between 12 and 20 seconds." Think that's easy? Then YOU try getting an actress out of a hoop-skirted, black-lace-with-duchess-satin gown and into something else in 12 seconds and see if nothing goes awry in the process. Some people can't change their shoes in 12 seconds!
"One of the reasons that I was present at every costume fitting," Bowling admitted, "was to help make sure that the garments were constructed with an eye to the quick changes they would be undergoing nightly."
Though they can pose quick-change challenges ("thank God for zippers," Bowling said), the details of Free Man of Color's garments are extraordinary. "These clothes are so well-designed," enthused Bowling. "Annie" - the play's costume designer extraordinaire, Ann Hould-Ward - "really did brilliant work for this one."
No sooner had I asked, "How so?" then Bowling was Pied-Pipering me through backstage-hallway racks and dressing-room closets and pointing out the concepts of Hould-Ward and their practical realization by several top Manhattan costume-making studios: Barbara Matera, Eric Winterling, Euroco, Tricorne, and Timberlake.
Bowling caressed one Mardi Gras scene costume, commenting, "This one is made of shells, rags, and feathers. The idea is that the character was poor, and had to make something out of whatever she could find."
I said that these costumes were highly imaginative.
"Fantasy is an important element in the design here," Bowling replied. "InThe Coast of Utopia" - another period show, done at LCT four years ago - "the clothing also was also made of fine fabric, but the looks were based in reality. For this one, fantasy is much more central."
Moving to another Free Man of Color rack, where he lovingly smoothed the satin of a wealthy character's garment, Bowling said, "The ladies' costumes are very fragile. You couldn't make them out of industrial fabric and achieve the right look, which means that this is a hard show to maintain, in terms of the clothing. It's so easy for an actor to catch a costume on a piece of plywood from the set."
Gazing down the racks of Free Man of Color costumes, and continually noticing how hard Bowling's staff was laboring to get things ready for the next performance, I commented, "I'm beginning to see why 19th-century women of refinement needed so many servants."
"A woman would have two or three or five housemaids just to take care of the clothing and help Madam get dressed," Bowling observed. "Not to mention the laundresses." He added: "There was no dry-cleaning then."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.