Kentucky Shakespeare Festival opens its 54th free Shakespeare in Central Park season this week with a Celtic-themed production of “Twelfth Night.” Directed by producing artistic director Brantley Dunaway, the romantic comedy features the adventures of heroine Viola, who disguises herself as a man (Cesario) when she’s rescued from a shipwreck and separated from her twin brother. She goes to work for a Duke, who asks her to intervene on his behalf with his romantic interest, who falls for Viola in disguise instead.
Shakespeare’s plays offer endless opportunities for adaptation, and costume design is crucial for signifying the production’s particular setting or time period before the first word is uttered. Because “Twelfth Night” is one of Shakespeare’s gender-switch romantic comedies, the costumes are going to play a significant artistic role.
Award-winning costume designer Shon LeBlanc, of Los Angeles’ The Costume House, has been designing theatrical and film costumes for 28 years. He says this production will have what he calls a “fantasy” Celtic theme – think “Lord of the Rings” meets Pixar’s “Brave.” That means kilts, corsets, hand-painted velvet gowns covered in elaborate stenciled Celtic designs — outside in a Kentucky summer.
“We’re using a lot of leather, so you’ll see leather kilts, leather doublets, and leather corsets. You’ll see panne velvet, which is a little cooler for the ladies to wear, for the dresses and things,” he says. “We tried to make things that we could completely wash, because it’s so warm out there. “
Those are the breaks for a purist like LeBlanc (“History is my drug of choice,” he says). In theater, the demands of the production can outrank tight fidelity to period details.
“You have to design each production for what it is,” he says. “You have to take creative license for the actor to do what they need to do on stage or on film.”
For “Twelfth Night,” that also means investigating costuming schemes that fall within the “fantasy Celtic” rubric that can effectively transform Viola, played by Madison Dunaway, into a credible male alter-ego.
“When Shakespeare was doing this [Viola was played by] boys. But any time you’re taking a pretty girl like Madison and trying to turn her into a little boy, it can be hard,” says LeBlanc, who found the kilt option to be less than effective for turning Viola into Cesario. “Let’s look at some trews, which is a type of pant. Let’s see how we can conceal her a little more than some of the other characters.”
Despite the challenges adaptations present, LeBlanc says the most complicated Shakespeare productions can be Elizabethan originals.
“We did ‘Richard III’ and set it in its period. It’s super novelty because everyone says, ‘I want to do it Georgian, I want to do it this,’ everybody takes it to a different realm,” he says. “When you start to see the show being put back into its period it’s a whole different show.”
“Twelfth Night” opens Thursday in the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre in Central Park and runs through July 14. The Players Conservatory, the festival’s high school acting troupe, will finish the season with “The Taming of the Shrew,” July 18-21. Productions are free and ticketless, but VIP seating and packages can be purchased.