Christine Carmela and Evan Michael Woods first met in 2015 in Texas Christian University’s acting program, and now the creative duo and former roommates have combined forces to produce the world premiere of “Miss Molly,” running now through Aug. 13 at Amphibian Stage.
The period piece that examines sexual orientation, gender roles and societal expectations comes to life, in no small part, through its costumes.
“Christine’s play deserves a big, grand, gay, extravagant production. I didn’t want to pare back or be minimal,” Woods said. “I wanted to really embrace just how big we could go — and I think we got that.”
Costume designer Aaron Patrick DeClerk was up for the task. Having designed more than 180 shows in his career, he has made a career out of using clothes to communicate.
For anyone who doubts the power of a costume, DeClerk points to all of the information that can be telegraphed by someone wearing something as simple as a white shirt and jeans. A crisp, collared button-down creates a different impression than someone wearing a grimy, sleeveless undershirt. Likewise, acid-washed denim helps root a story in a different decade than skinny jeans might.
“All of those things help psychologically inform the audience as to who a character is,” he said.
But in this production, he had a lot more fabric and dramatic silhouettes to play with.
“Christine’s play deserves a big, grand, gay, extravagant production. I didn’t want to pare back or be minimal. I wanted to really embrace just how big we could go — and I think we got that.” – Evan Michael Woods, Director
Describing a play with design
Set in London in 1889, “Miss Molly” is a farcical comedy that follows two lifelong friends and lovers, Matthias Manley and Aloysius Thurston, as they devise a plan to hide their relationship by courting two sisters, Molly and Genevieve Houseington. The women’s mother, the Viscountess Petunia Houseington, suspects that something is amiss with the men in these newly minted relationships, so she enlists the help of their own mothers, Bertha Thurston and Ella Manley, to put them to the test.
DeClerk employed colors as a tool to help the audience keep track of the characters’ relations to one another.
It’s no mistake that the Manleys are dressed in blue or that the Thurston mother and son are clad in pink. The status-obsessed Viscountess Petunia and Miss Molly Houseington are dressed in shades of green as a nod to the color of money. Miss Genevieve Housington, who shares a last name but does not share the same outlook as mother and sister, is frequently seen in purple. This mixture of pink and blue, hints at her alignment with the way the Manleys and Thurstons view the world.
Getting the color palette right is a group effort with the rest of the creative team to make sure that one character doesn’t accidentally match the wallpaper too well that they disappear into it — unless that is the goal.
“There’s times that you intentionally look for that color to make a person disappear because that’s what you’re wanting to do psychologically with this character,” he said. “The same thing with lights, you can have a beautiful pattern on a dress and they can flood it with a blue gel (that overpowers the details) and turns everything brown … you have to have a language (to communicate) with the other designers.”
Other design elements, like the recurrence of bows on Molly’s costumes, offer further hints to the audience.
“One of the ideas that Aaron and I talked about, inspired truly by Christine’s love of bows, is this idea that she’d been wrapped up like a present or presented like a doll, that her mother set off to acquire her husband,” he said. “It’s feminine and it’s beautiful and it’s fun. But it also, in a way, shows the restraint or the idea of Molly lacking agency.”
Dress forms and function
Even though many of the characters are outfitted in corsets, petticoats and heels, the costume designs can’t get in the way of their functionality. Several of the cast members still need to be able to run, while others have to be able to fake a fall or stand on a piece of furniture.
Carmela, who wrote the play and plays the titular role of “Miss Molly,” wanted the Victorian-era show to be action-packed.
“When I’m watching a heightened, farcical comedy on stage, I want to see people running in and out of rooms and slamming doors,” she said. “Because I’m silly, I wrote all those in without thinking that I might do them one day … But nonetheless I’m sprinting around on stage like, ‘Why did I do this?’”
Running in heels and broad skirts is an athletic feat, so to help actors adjust, DeClerk lent out petticoats and corsets before the full costumes were ready so that the actors could get used to the feeling during rehearsals
Fortunately, he and the show’s fight and intimacy coordinator, Kelsey Milbourn, have navigated similar challenges together before. Both worked at the Trinity Shakespeare Festival where scenes with fights and falls also took place with cast members in ornate, period costumes.
“Yousort of learn things aren’t precious … and that doesn’t mean you can’t have grand entrances and splashy, fantastic clothes,” DeClerk said. “But everything at the end of the day is there to serve the purpose of the play.”
Following the first dress rehearsal there were some small adjustments to be made, like modifying hemlines or adding sleeves to evening gowns.
“If they’re not comfortable in their costumes, it’s obvious,” he said.“Part of my job is watching the dress rehearsals (to see what) people are pulling on … Where is that bothering you? What can I do? … And you figure it out and make it work.”
“One of the ideas that Aaron and I talked about, inspired truly by Christine’s love of bows, is this idea that she’d been wrapped up like a present or presented like a doll, that her mother set off to acquire her husband,” he said. “It’s feminine and it’s beautiful and it’s fun. But it also, in a way, shows the restraint or the idea of Molly lacking agency.” – Aaron Patrick DeClerk, Costume Designer
A climactic costume
All of the show’s 11 gowns were custom-designed from the start, but one dress in particular plays a central role in advancing the plot line in the second half of the play.
Without revealing too much about the plot, the gown has an illusion neckline that gives the appearance of skin showing beneath the lace pattern that conceals the second costume hiding underneath.
The construction enables a quick change without delaying any of the dialogue on stage, and the dress’ design amplifies the absurdity of the action that swirls around it.
“It’s real people dealing with quite real stakes and situations, but the rules of their world are quite silly,” Woods, the director, said. “It’s ludicrous and hilarious. But the play is so carefully crafted that you’re laughing while also deeply feeling for and terrified of what the outcome at the end of the play is going to be.”
The physical presentation of each character is directly tied to the societal pressures that surround them and how comfortable they are — or are not — with expressing their sexuality.
“I feel like we have such very rigid concepts of what that is and what that means for each individual person based on how they act or look,” Carmela said. “It is an incredibly surface-level value, and baby what you see isn’t always true.”
Carmela expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity to have that conversation on stage and for the team who helped make it possible. “Every aspect of the process has been such a dream of a debut.”