Finer designers

Cooperation key to Tony-nominated looks

Marina Draghici’s costumes bring a glow to the women in Fela Kuti’s life.

Just as the lines between design jobs continue to blur, the 2010 Tony nominations reflect not just designers who create beautiful scenery and costumes but designers who play well with others.

Christine Jones, who designed the videoscreen-covered set for Green Day’s rock tuner “American Idiot,” says the heart of the project was in the people who worked on it with her. “Billie Joe Armstrong talked about where he lived when he first moved to Oakland,” Jones recalls. “He said they had a BB gun on the wall that they used to shoot rats with, and a tally next to it that kept score between the rats and the people, so if you look on the walls, you can see that I’ve included the BB gun and the tally.”

Jones wanted the set to look like an artist’s collective or warehouse — “places that were rehearsal studios and places to crash and where you’d come to work on your graffiti art.” Jones says that she, director Michael Mayer and video artist Darrel Maloney were on the same page. “We all just sort of knew when something was right and when something was wrong.”

For “Red,” John Logan’s Mark Rothko biodrama, set and costume designer Christopher Oram also found inspiration in workshop spaces, but his main collaborator was lighting designer Neil Austin. “There are entire scenes about the nature of light on these paintings,” Oram says.

The show required careful reassembly when it moved from the Donmar Warehouse’s three-quarters space to the Golden’s proscenium. “The lights had to be adjusted accordingly while still keeping it sort of low and crepuscular,” Oram recalls. “A lot of it is lit by the actual lights in the space, the practicals on the stands.”

Not all lighting-related challenges are as subtle. Marina Draghici, who designed the set and costumes for “Fela!,” had to design for an entire scene under black light. “We discovered that polyester and Lycra have a fiber in them that glows under black light,” she says. Accordingly, Draghici and her team went from store to store in New York, shining a UV flashlight on clothes to see if they could get the right effect: “People would come up to us and say, ‘What are you doing?’ We would explain, and they would look at us with very puzzled expressions.”

While Draghici tried to be true to Fela’s vision, “La Cage aux Folles” costume designer Matthew Wright wanted a new concept for the now-classic show. In helmer Terry Johnson’s concept, the Cagelles — dancers at a drag club — aren’t men in disguise, they’re full-on drag queens. “Other productions have been more about disguising men as women,” says Wright. “We’ve not tried to disguise the fact that they’re men, so we’re able to expose a lot more flesh,” he observes.

“In the Next Room” costume designer David Zinn had the opposite challenge: to re-create some of the most modest clothing in human history for Sarah Ruhl’s period comedy about sexual repression. The project “doesn’t feel restrictive,” Zinn says. “Of course, it was literally restrictive — the women are in and out of those clothes so much, and it’s not easy, which was the point of the play. It was really fun to figure out how various things came on and off.”

Zinn also got to show the Victorian underwear that often remains hidden in plays and movies. “It was great, because nobody was like, ‘Really, do you have to spend the money to make these bloomers?’ Yes, we do, because they’re going to be photographed.”

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