Costume designer Susan Branch and director Paul Barnes worked together previously on a production of "Midsummer Night's Dream." Ten years ago, they collaborated in Virginia.
Barnes is a founder of the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minn. He has directed at the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City and at Pioneer Theatre Company, where he and Branch worked together on both productions of "Beauty and the Beast."
Because they've collaborated before, Branch knew she would be able to catch Barnes' vision, even before she knew what he wanted for the upcoming "Midsummer Night's Dream." When he called her to talk about costumes, Branch recalls, he wanted to set the play in an era that was favorable to underwear.
So, Branch started thinking Victorian and Edwardian. She started thinking of women running through the trees clad in petticoats and bloomers. She started thinking, "beautiful and graceful."
Branch is in Utah now. By the time she returns to her home in Austin, Texas, she will have spent a month here. She spends at least half of every year on the road, she explains.
Austin doesn't have a theater like Pioneer, Branch explains. With no first-class regional theater in her hometown, Branch has to find work in places such as the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and New York City. Her previous work at Pioneer includes designing costumes for "Chicago" and "Julius Caesar." She always enjoys working with a large professional staff, she says. And she enjoys returning home to her family and her fiance.
The plot of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is all about love, of course. The play tells of a couple from the world of humans who run to the forest to escape the people who would prevent their wedding. Her spurned lover follows. Then the spurned lover's discarded girlfriend follows him into the forest.
The fairies who live in the woods, meanwhile, have their own problems with love. The king and queen of the fairies are in a fight and the wild creatures are being caught in the crossfire.
If it is difficult to bring a fresh look to one of Shakespeare's most well-known comedies, Branch doesn't notice the obstacles. She says she saw endless possibilities in translating the supernatural world on to the stage.
Branch told her he envisioned a Puck who had a bit of an edge to him. And Oberon, too, the king of the fairies and Puck's master, Barnes saw him as edgy. Not scary exactly, but not sweet and easy-going, either.
Branch had already been thinking of the fairies as scavengers. Since fairies can live for centuries, she figured they would have picked up articles of clothing from other generations. They'd have a scarf or shoes or something much older than the Edwardian era.
With ideas about edginess and scavenging in her mind, Branch started looking at some of her favorite graphic novels. She was inspired by the darker images of her favorite Japanese artist. In the end, she says, she decided to give Puck and Oberon a bit of armor, a bit of fierceness.
Branch doesn't expect everyone who sees the play to sit and analyze the costumes. The average viewer might not notice that the male fairies have animal attributes while the female fairies bring to mind leaves or water.
However, she does expect the audience to be able to identify which group each character belongs to, the fairies or the humans. To that end, Branch dresses the humans in warmer, brighter colors, colors like orange and red. The fairies are given the colors of the earth and the trees.
As Branch thought about contrasting the supernatural world with the world of mortals, she also thought about comfort. At the turn of the last century, both men and women wore constraining clothes.Branch found her mind kept returning to tight collars and stiff fabrics. She remembered the green military uniforms she'd designed for Pioneer five years ago, and decided to resurrect them. She started thinking about how happily humans would shed their rigid garments, after they'd lived for a time in nature.
If you go ...
What: "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Pioneer Theatre Company
Where: Pioneer Memorial Theatre, University of Utah
When: Feb. 15 through March 1
How much: $21-$39 (children's tickets half-price on Mondays and Tuesdays)