By Vicki Weisfeld

The set and costume choices used in theater can seem more obvious than other aspects of a production, if only because they are things we evaluate all the time. What people are wearing; their rooms. We may bite our tongues, but we notice. They were the topic of my third “How to Watch a Play” class led by Adam Immerwahr, artistic director at Theater J in Washington DC. (The theater’s next batch of classes is already filled, but in ten days or so, they’ll be announcing early 2021 offerings.)

Sets and costumes give a show its tone and style and help define where and when it takes place. Check Google images for different productions of the same play, and you’ll find “dramatically” different interpretations that serve different dramatic concepts. Innumerable specific choices in the design of sets and costumes—the materials used, their color and texture, and whether they appear buoyant or heavy, for example—produce a show’s look and feel.

Many scripts contain tricky elements that have to be worked out, and the set or costumes may be the key to resolving them. For example, Into the Woods has many short scenes that occur in different “locations.” The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production we watched on Broadway HD employed a multi-level set that was lit to showcase one location at a time. The stand of trees in the background lent themselves to the set design free of charge. I saw The Tempest in Regent’s Park some years ago and mostly remember rocks, not trees (plus a real thunderstorm, right on cue). Now I’m guessing the “rocks” were placed there by the set designer.

To convey a sense of the status and personality of a show’s characters, costume designers use line, color, fabric, accessories, makeup, and wigs/hair. One of my “unforgettable theater moments” was a costume moment. It came during a Folger Theatre production of Richard III some forty years ago. The cast was dressed all in black, the simple set was heavy and dim. No color at all. As Act II (I think) began, Richard, wearing a black cape, trudged up a short stairway. At the top, he flung open the cape, revealing a spotlit scarlet lining. No question about his murderous intentions!

Dressing a character in all black or all white suggests a lot about them. White usually implies purity. A bit of counter-costuming often gives Lady Macbeth a long white gown. In one production I saw, she was on stage alone and turned her back to the audience to grip the iron bars of a gate in both her hands (thereby breaking gel-packs of fake blood). She ran her hands up and down her torso and, when she turned to face us, the blood-stained white dress was a shocker and, of course, dramatically significant. Finally, Adam advises, if you’re ever asking yourself, “Is that a wig?” The answer is “yes.”