A Very Real Woman

A Very Real Woman
An Interview with Testament Costume Designer Jessie Amoroso
By Adam Odsess-Rubin

Costume designer Jessie Amoroso shares some of the images
that inspired his design.
Fall is always a busy season in A.C.T.’s costume shop: the staff creates costumes for all Master of Fine Arts Program, Young Conservatory, and mainstage shows, in addition to renting costumes to people looking for special Halloween outfits. That doesn’t stop A.C.T. Costume Shop Manager Jessie Amoroso, who is the costume designer for Testament, from investing himself in the design process of the one-woman show. Amoroso gave us a look into the complex process of designing a costume for one of the most iconic women in history.

What research did you do for Testament?
Mary is such a prominent figure that has been written about for centuries, so there is quite a bit out there to digest. Luckily, we have Michael Paller, who did an amazing job with the dramaturgy. But research starts with the script, and Colm Tóibín wrote an amazing piece of literature. I knew we weren’t going for a “swords-and-sandals” portrayal of this great woman, but we didn’t want something so abstract that she would be removed from what we know of Mary. I knew early on that the color blue would appear as a watered-down blue-gray. I also looked at historical clothing, and I found that it was usually brown in color, and the fabrics were natural: linen and flax. I took all those images and presented them to Carey [Perloff], and we tried to see where the story was going.

What have your conversations with director Carey Perloff and actor Seana McKenna been like?
We spoke a lot about the realism of the costume and the idea that it may need to transform during the process. The character relates several stories in Testament, and it would be nice if the costume could help facilitate that; maybe a scarf becomes a shawl, or maybe it’s wrapped around the waist. The costume should have a transformative effect so that she can inhabit some of the other characters she talks about. She reenacts the wedding scene and the Crucifixion; she visits temples, walks through villages, and speaks to other people. Seana may want her costume to transform as she transitions between recollections.

You have the task of designing a costume for a play that is set in a nonspecific time and place. How do you mediate that?
In the script, Mary speaks as if the events surrounding her son’s execution have just happened, but for us, they happened two millennia ago. Tóibín takes it to a place of realism, and he tries to explore the larger ideas and how they pertain to our daily lives. If we put that story in a world of stone, mud, heat, and sandals, it would take away from the audience’s ability to identify with her. We will use contemporary clothing, which is an idiom that audiences will recognize. That way, they won’t be put off by the image of the Mother of God, who is a character beyond reproach. People will relate to Mary much better if they don’t have to decipher what the costume is.

Is the costume meant to be a bit ambiguous?
Not so much ambiguous as universal. We talked a lot about whether or not we would include a crucifix. If this character actually is Mary, Mother of God, would she wear a crucifix? We decided she probably wouldn’t. We will answer questions like that every day in the rehearsal room. I plan on going to rehearsal quite a bit to talk about what the costume needs to do, and to see how things evolve with Seana and Carey on a daily basis.
This is my third time working with Seana, so I have an idea of what she is comfortable in and how she has felt about past characters. Luckily, we did a reading of Testament earlier this year, so I saw her perform it once. I was able to get a good idea of how she moves the character, where she puts some of the exclamation points. That helped me choose a starting place.

Do you agree with the way Tóibín has shaped Mary?
I do. It’s almost like she is the mother of an executive. He’s more important to his shareholders, as their leader and the moneymaker, than he is to his parents; they might have other children, or maybe he wasn’t their favorite child. Parents have very different relationships with their children from the relationships the children have to the rest of the world. That’s something to remember: everyone is someone’s child.

For more about Testament, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays!
Click here to order online.

For tickets to Testament visit act-sf.org/testament.

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