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'Irma Vep' A Show Dependent On Clothes Encounters

The Kansas City Repertory Theatre's latest production, The Mystery of Irma Vep, features eight characters of both sexes, including the Lord and Lady Hillcrest, their maid and butler, and a couple of surprise visitors.

Because the license for the show stipulates that it can only be cast with two actors of the same gender, it requires a dizzying amount of split second costume changes that depend on both a skillful designer and dressers with laser focus.

Charles Ludlam's satire of several theatrical and film genres may be one of the few shows that would be equally interesting to watch from behind the set. That's because its cast of two, Mark Robbins and Ron Megee, play eight different characters who, by evening's end, make up to 35 costume changes. Costume designer Lindsay Davis says the challenge requires a backstage team to ensure it goes off without a hitch, and a creative approach to costume construction.

"They go back and forth and back and forth, and the changes have to happen between a second and a half and three seconds," Davis says. "So literally they get offstage, the three dressers and the wig person attack the actors, and make the changes. It’s very, very impressive. 

"But in terms of making it work? From floor to neck, the costumes don’t close. So that means they are put on like a backward coat and then velcroed up the back - these giant period dresses and giant period coats and costumes that go on with one back step in."

Who Wears The Pants?

Davis also reveals a backstage secret to some of the lightning quick changes audiences will see.

"There’s also a lot of under-dressing in this show that the audience I don’t think will quite perceive or pick up on," he says. "There is one costume that is on throughout the majority of the show and the secondary costume goes on and off, on and off over the initial costume. 

"For example, it’s easy to cover up men’s pants underneath a full-length gown. So the pants and shoes don’t change and the male characters will wear the shirt, the vest, the pants, the shoes underneath the female characters."

The 30-Second Solution

One of the dressers is Kyle Mowry, who also dressed much of this summer's Starlight Theatre season. He explains how a show knows it needs dressers.

"When there are quick changes. Quick entrances. When a person has to come offstage and come on within a short period of time - 30 seconds," Mowry says. "That's when you need someone backstage to help them. 

"As a dresser, I don't want the actor to worry about his clothes coming on and off. That's the idea. You want to support the actor offstage so they can concentrate on being the character."

Davis adds, "Whenever the stress of the actor is lessened, there is generally a dresser available to take the stress off the actor so the actor can think about the important thing, which is making the next entrance and being awake and aware and be prepared to do the next sequence of lines."

And Mowry adds insight into what a dresser needs to know to do his or her job effectively: "Know which side of the garment is the front and which is the back. That's it."

A Backstage Ballet

Before the costumes were even finished, Mowry says Robbins and Megee donned muslin dummies of the eventual wardrobe pieces to work out the intricate details necessary to making the show look seamless from the front of the house.

"I think of it as a backstage ballet," he says. "We came in early, like two weeks before our tech to rehearse, and we choreographed it literally like a dance backstage. So when Mark (Robbins) or Ron (Megee) come to me to get out of a garment, we practiced that, and said, 'You turn this way, and then you turn this way, and do this.' It’s really wild back there. It gets really hectic."

Asked if he had a favorite costume in the show, Lindsay Davis waffled at first, saying you can't pick a favorite child, but then doubled down on one of Mark Robbins's beaded gowns.

Kansas City Repertory Theatre presents The Mystery of Irma Vep (A Penny Dreadful) through November 18, 2012 on Copaken Stage, downtown on the corner of 13th and Walnut streets. 816-235-2700.

The “Artists in Their Own Words” series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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