Dressing Albee’s Twins
How Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes evoke the spirit of Edward Albee’s new play
In the Playwrights Horizons production of Edward Albee’s Me, Myself & I, twin brothers wear matching outfits. Their loopy mother, who can’t tell them apart after twenty-eight years, wears a blowsy nightgown, and the doctor who shares her bed wears a suit, even when he’s under the covers.
At first glance, you’d think these clothes were utterly naturalistic. You might even assume they’d been pulled off the hangers in a department store.
But soon, you realize the costumes were designed. When a twin’s girlfriend appears, for instance, she’s wearing a rich green dress with a vibrant yellow jacket. The pieces pop like firecrackers against the muted set, and they make a statement about her power. Clearly, these are more than just clothes.
That’s how the play works, too: Though it begins like a cracked comedy, it becomes an acid investigation of how family roles and even the conventions of storytelling can flatten us, obliterate us. Moments that seem realistic become stylized, and characters who seem silly become sinister or grotesque.
Costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser worked carefully to echo that structure. Take the twins, named OTTO and otto, who wear matching grey shirts; dark, skinny jeans; and black shoes. Their clothes are hip, but they’re also blank canvases, like uniforms for Everytwins. “You want to suggest both ideas at once, that they’re recognizable as modern young people but they’re not exactly ‘realistic’ modern young people,” von Mayrhauser says. “If you get too cluttered and specific, then you think, ‘Well, why didn’t he change clothes after that scene?’ In a way, I feel like the twins’ clothes help the audience embrace the theatrical conventions.”
Of course, von Mayrhauser’s choices aren’t based solely on the script. The entire creative team—which includes director Emily Mann and sound, light, and set designers—decided their production would highlight the archetypal elements of the show. The costumes complement Thomas Lynch’s set, which suggests a bedroom without literally creating one, and the actors’ performing style, which is highly physical and just a touch over-the-top.
“Everything’s connected,” say von Mayrhauser. “If Thomas Lynch had done a totally different sent, or the lights were different, then the costumes would be different.”
But the clothes don’t only suggest dramatic themes. They also have to be worn by real people. “That’s another thing about costume design,” says von Mayrhauser. “When it works, it works not just for the play but for the actors.”
Take Mother’s nightgown, which she wears for the entire show: It suits not only the eccentric character, but also Elizabeth Ashley’s performance. After watching Ashley in rehearsal, von Mayrhauser decided the nightgown’s fabric should have a feisty, sixties-inspired pattern. “There’s something sassy in Liz’s performance that I love and that I wanted to capture,” she says.
She also wanted to make sure the nightgown gave Ashley room to move. The actress constantly makes wild gestures, grand speeches, and exasperated pronouncements, and a tight-fitting negligee just wouldn’t let that happen
To that end, von Mayrhauser met with Ashley several times throughout the rehearsal process, discussing her character and creating “drafts” of the nightgown for the actress to try on.
That’s a lot to keep in mind—the actors’ needs, the other designers’ choices, and the tone of the script—but for von Mayrhauser, those challenges are exciting. “It’s what I love about being a costume designer,” she says. “You have the ability to be part of a collaboration in expressing the story of the play.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
Photo credits: (Top)Elizabeth Ashley and Brian Murray. (Middle) Zachary Booth and Preston Sadleir. Photos by Joan Marcus