The day before the previews for the Guthrie’s Cyrano de Bergerac began, the costume department was still bustling with more than half a dozen people fixing trims and collars, weaving in flowers to wreaths, fixing nun headdresses, and revising details that didn’t quite work on stage during rehearsals. Under costume designer Jan Chambers’ vision, the show’s large 18-person cast necessitates 78 costumes that involve approximately 500 individual pieces.
Well, “necessitates” might be a strong word, but artistic director Joseph Haj’s marching orders to Chambers were to do a traditional wardrobe with the “Guthrie treatment.” To Chambers, that meant maximizing the Guthrie’s ability to create. The show ended up enlisting 17 people for costume work and 11 people on wigs and facial hair.
To be fair, the play is set in a pretty grandiose period. Not Louis XIV grandiose (right now the ruler is Louis XIII), but still grandiose. The story takes place in France during the Battle of Arras in 1640, but the simplified summary is that it’s a love story. Cyrano de Bergerac is a cadet in the French army, and he is in a love triangle with Christian, a young new cadet, and the beautiful and intelligent Roxane. Despite Cyrano’s many talents, his humongous nose strips him of self-confidence, so when Roxane expresses romantic interest in Christian, Cyrano gives Christian the words he needs to woo her. I’m sure you can extrapolate the potential conflicts from there.
“I know Joe didn’t want anybody to look silly, and that’s a big worry in this period,” Chambers says. “One of the first things he said was to kind of ‘joosh’ the period a bit.” That meant moving the women’s fashion forward a few years to a more elegant, natural waist gown to not trivialize their maturity and to move the men’s fashion back a few years so they weren’t stuck with the silly high-waisted silhouettes.
Although Chambers has been a costume designer for decades—she cites her first gig at age 6 when she and her friends were selling peach pits and she decided they needed to look poorer and dirtier to garner pity—this was the first time that Chambers created costumes for the cavalier period. To research, she watched a lot of movies but also went back to the primary sources: paintings and drawings.
“There’s a lot from this period, particularly the Dutch painters like Holbein and Rembrandt, and there’s a slew of them. They’re further north, but the silhouette is there,” Chambers says. “There’s a lot of painting of French people as well, both royalty and nobility, but also some of the lower classes, and you know, you kind of have to hit both.”
Haj, on the other hand, has done the play, and with the same set designer, McKay Coble. He, Coble, and Chambers all worked together for more than a decade at the Playmakers Repertory Company in North Carolina, but Chambers joined just after Cyrano was put on.
For the 2006 Playmakers production, he ended up penning his own adaptation of the Edmond Rostand classic, using his own working knowledge of French and two old English translations of the script to create a version where, among other slight shifts, Christian isn’t an oaf and Roxane has more of a voice. Haj is bringing that script to the Guthrie as well, but furthered even more.
To bring these character developments into life, Chambers chose dress colors for Roxane that would allow her to stand out in the crowd and removed the gaudy “frippery” at the time (her words, not mine) to make her a more mature and elegant presence. For Christian, Chambers put him in lighter colors. “He sort of seems to glow a bit,” she says. “You sort of see what Roxane sees.”
Because of the amount of pieces in the show, Chambers also looked to other theaters such as the Milwaukee Repertory Theater—you have them to thank for Montfleury’s over-the-top, 60-pound getup—and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (Shakespeare lived before the cavalier period, but much of the peasant, poet, or cadet wear is more timeless or can be repurposed.) Even as she looked through the options, she knew she had to keep everything cohesive: The costumes have to work with the costumes the Guthrie is creating, and everyone’s costumes have to work with the color palette derived from the set, a curiosity cabinet-inspired scheme with hand-painted flowers and layers that are stripped away as the truth comes out.
As the Cyrano de Bergerac preview performances run through March 21, the costume department may continue to tweak the final look. Chambers, who lives in North Carolina, certainly plans to stay through opening night. Once the show officially opens, though, everything is set: no more adjusting the neckline, no more sewing extra snaps. The world that Chambers and the rest of the creative and production team created will be set for the show’s six-week run. Looking at the costumes and the set, it’s bound to be a masterpiece.