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THEATER : Costume Designer Knows Wear It's At

December 05, 1991|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who frequently writes about theater for The Times Orange County Edition.

Bary Odom knows that many theatergoers regard costume design with a casual eye, seeing it merely as window-dressing, something to make the actors look good or to help lend the setting an appropriate aura.

But that doesn't mean he agrees with them.

Odom, 49, has been a costumer for three decades with such major groups as the Royal Shakespeare Company, New York's Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera at Covent Garden.

"I'm biased, of course," he said, "but it really is more than that. Good design is enormously vital to any show. It gives clues to what the people are like, to what the play is all about.

"As for that (business) about window-dressing, well, I think the costumes are more important than the scenery. If the costumes are bad, they can ruin a show. But if they're good, they can help take the audience where the director wants them to go. Nobody comes out humming the costume designs, but they do have subtle impact."

Odom's latest project is the Laguna Playhouse's production of the Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick musical "She Loves Me," continuing at the Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach through Dec. 14. Odom, who lives in San Diego, said his longtime friend, director Mark Stevens, persuaded him to take the job.

"It really didn't take much effort on his part, though," he added, "because I really like this musical. It seems so understated and lovely, with delicate music. I looked forward to the opportunity to come up with my designs."

Based on Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 movie "The Shop Around the Corner," starring James Stewart, the musical is about two cosmetics clerks who seem to hate each other but fall in love anyway, as anonymous pen pals in Europe during the '30s.

Odom designed all the female costumes from scratch and helped assemble them himself. He put the male costumes together with pieces already belonging to the playhouse. Apparently pleased with the results, the theater hired him to create the costumes for its upcoming production of "An Enemy of the People" by Henrik Ibsen.

Odom became involved with theater in the early '60s, at a small community playhouse in San Francisco. He acted for a while ("I said a few lines, I carried spears, all very badly") and eventually moved backstage, where he felt more comfortable. Costume design became his niche, and soon he migrated to New York to learn more about the craft.

From there, he was invited to many of the preeminent theater and opera houses in the English-speaking world. Odom said his best memories are of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

"Definitely the best work I've been involved with was there," he said. "The difference is how adventurous they always were, even with Shakespeare's classics. They aren't afraid to take chances and, more often than not, they pay off."

He came back to the States and continued costume design but then decided to teach. In the mid-'80s, he was hired by Southern Methodist University in Texas, where he taught design until 1989, when cutbacks eliminated his classes from the theater arts department. His next job took him to San Diego: He worked there as a professor of design at United States International University. About a year ago, though, its drama department also was reduced, and once more Odom found himself without a job.

"It's very depressing how the economy is forcing universities to take such steps," he said. "When there are cutbacks, it usually occurs in the liberal arts areas. I guess you could call me one of the casualties."

Faced with that, he is considering whether he wants to continue in education or return to theater full time.

"Frankly," he said, "I miss doing the designs on a full-time basis. It was really nice doing 'She Loves Me.' "

What: The Laguna Playhouse production of "She Loves Me."

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Dec. 14.

Where: The Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego Freeway to Laguna Canyon Road and head south.

Wherewithal: $14 to $22.

Where to Call: (714) 494-8021 or (714) 497-9244.

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