The doublets are smashing and the gowns ever so elegant. But "The School of Night," which opens today at the Mark Taper Forum, is more than an Elizabethan fashion show. Robert Perdziola's costumes are as intricately crafted as Peter Whelan's 1992 drama about the political, sexual and criminal intrigues surrounding the death of Christopher Marlowe.
"With this play you're never quite sure where it's going or who's to be trusted," the designer says. "With each character there's actually a good bit of nuance."
Whelan's Marlowe is a proud maverick in a 16th century England where everyone else seems to live in fear of being arrested. Suspected of heresy, treason and homosexuality, the 29-year-old dramatist was killed in a pub fight in 1593. Who was behind the slaying remains a mystery. In the play, Marlowe spends his last months with his aristocratic patrons as well as writers, actors and other rogues -- enabling Perdziola and director Bill Alexander to move beyond prim ruffs and farthingales.
"Bill told me not to be afraid to use color," Perdziola says. Everything, he adds, is "wearable -- you can see the human figure through them." (Not to mention flashes of skin.)
After extensive research, Perdziola created "idea sketches" and met the cast, whose physical features he incorporated into his gouache-and-watercolor renderings. The show's nearly three dozen costumes were built at Eric Winterling Inc. in New York and at the Center Theatre Group's shop, by 18 people, including drapers, crafts artists, stitchers and shoppers.
"When I go to the theater I like to focus on the character or the actor," Perdziola says. "They are the most important things on the stage."