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Her Costumes Fit the Actors and the Scene

Theater * Andreane Neofitou keeps an eye out for clashing color schemes and period details that make all the difference.

January 06, 2001|KARIN LIPSON | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — Not a beat was lost in the busy backstage rhythm of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre one recent evening as actor Stephen R. Buntrock yelled, in mock outrage, "She's got her hands down my pants!"

Andreane Neofitou did indeed have her hands, if not exactly down, at least on the back of Buntrock's trousers. But then, this was the last technical rehearsal for the Broadway musical "Jane Eyre," which opened Dec. 10.

Neofitou, the show's costume designer, was ready to do some pants adjusting for a cast member if that's what was needed. So too with fixing the elegant pale-green damask waistcoat of male lead James Barbour, or checking out some wigs, or fretting over an actress' ill-fitting shoe.

What was she looking for, exactly? "I look at everything," she said. "There's nothing I'm looking for, because I don't know what won't be right. If you see something, it means it's wrong."

Uh-oh. She saw something. But what? Onstage, it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood, if your neighborhood happened to be the moody English moors. In the garden of mysterious Thornfield Hall, Jane (played by Marla Schaffel) had chanced upon a bevy of bratty aristocrats, led by the flighty Blanche Ingram (Elizabeth DeGrazia). Blanche was all flounces and ruffles and poofy white silk taffeta, while Jane--plain Jane, penniless Jane, the lowly governess--was severely clad in black. A perfect contrast in station and character, it would seem.

But in her seat, Neofitou was not entirely pleased. Those dazzling white dresses of Blanche and company threatened to visually overwhelm the dark gown worn by Jane, upsetting the balance of the scene. "I could put her gray collar on, so it catches the light a little more," mused Neofitou, as her assistant, Devon Painter, took notes. Within days, not only was the collar on, but Neofitou was shopping for fabric during previews to create new, more casual and less commanding pastel dresses for the silly gaggle of girls mocking Jane in the garden.

Dressing down a scene is not what one usually thinks of as a costume designer's goal. But "for me, it's never a matter of doing pretty costumes," said Neofitou. "I'm trying to bring a world--with period pieces, specifically, it's an alien world--to modern audiences, to make that world the present. I don't want to have a barrier between the audience and what's going on onstage. You have to make that costume so familiar, so real to that character, that the audience doesn't see the costumes, it sees the character."

It also, of course, doesn't see the costume designer. With a few striking exceptions (such as Julie Taymor, of "Lion King" fame), costume designers, much like most set designers and lighting directors, are only vaguely known to the public.

Though she has created the costumes for such mega-hits as "Miss Saigon" and "Les Miserables" (which won her a Tony nomination), Neofitou is not exactly a household name, yet her work is part of the glue that holds a show together.

"Jane Eyre" experienced a few bumps on the road to Broadway: Critical reaction to its initial full-scale 1996 Toronto production was mixed, and reviews of a more streamlined 1999 version in La Jolla were modestly positive.

But although there have been some personnel changes along the way, Neofitou is part of an informal team that long predates "Jane Eyre": She previously worked with John Caird, who wrote the show's book and is its co-director, and with set designer John Napier (who happens also to be her ex-husband), on "Les Miz" and "Nicholas Nickleby." She also worked with Napier on "Miss Saigon."

"I'm trying to augment what the director is saying or the actor is doing," Neofitou says. When the emphasis of a character changes during rehearsals, which are frequently attended by the costume designer, "you do bend the costumes. The costumes are always fluid."

This sort of continuing involvement with the show and the ability to make adjustments gracefully seem to be keys to successful costume design.

Apparently not every designer has the knack. "It's often the case with visual collaborators that suddenly [actors] will come to you and say, 'Look, she's making me wear this or that,' " Caird says. By contrast, he says, Neofitou "and the actors are pursuing an active conversation about the character. I never have a conflict, I never have an actor coming to me confused."

Born in Cyprus, Neofitou moved with her parents to England at age 7. A graduate of art school, she was a fashion designer in London until her marriage to Napier led her increasingly into theater work. Nowadays, she does her initial sketches in Crete, where she has lived full time for the last four years.

"It's wonderful to live in the rarefied atmosphere of theater, but one tends to get terribly caught up in this life, and it's not real," Neofitou says.

"I think it's better for me as a person and as a designer to be able to touch reality, and Crete is as far away as you can get from the theater crowd and the theater world socially."

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