St. Monica In Drag--Costuming UWM's Judas Iscariot

The Challenge of Costuming a Show In Purgatory

Mar. 6, 2011
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out of context, this looks like a perfectly ordinary dress.

Louella Powell sits at a long table in the basement of UWM’s Theatre building working on a wig. The wig is just one small part of a project that includes costuming for Sigmund Freud, Mother Theresa, and a large man playing Saint Monica as a drag queen. The dress a student is working on not far from her looks deceptively simple. The costuming for the production in question is actually quite elaborate. At one point in our conversation, a student walks up to her and shows her a sketch for a pair of wings. In decades of working in costuming, she has never worked on anything quite like this.

The production in question is Rebecca Holderness’ staging of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot—--a modern play about an appeal trial for Judas in purgatory. The script mixes eras. Sigmund Freud must look like Sigmund Freud. Mother Theresa must look like Mother Theresa and Saint Monica must look like a towering young man in heels with a ridiculously large wig.

Thankfully, Powell doesn’t have to worry too much about making the disparate costuming of the play look cohesive. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is a generous mix of references to different eras—from the age of the New Testament to the early 20th century and beyond, characters all carry their own style with them into purgatory. There’s an overall feel of the ‘60’s mixed with looks from other eras. (Simon the Zealot looks like James Dean—the title character has a similar look.)

Each actor also has a say in costuming. Holderness allowed the actors to come-up with their own ideas for costuming. The actor playing St. Thomas told her that he saw himself as a Baptist preacher—so a clerical collar was added to the Saint’s business suit. She’d gotten word that St. Peter needed waders—evidently the character is being played like an upper-peninsula fisherman. He appears onstage in waders and a Packers hat, evidently carrying a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon. (So it’s kind of a weird production.)

Holderness has Satan wearing three different actors for the production. The trick of making that seem at all cohesive is a bit of a challenge and the costuming does some of the work. Satan’s shirt as a man is a very specific green. As a woman, the devil does not wear a blue dress. As played by UWM’s Amanda J. Hull, Satan wears a black skirt, actually—with a blouse that matches the exact green as the male Satan. Satan also take the form of a child who will be wearing a green tie of some sort . . . the real challenge is to make it all the contrasting styles feel like they could occupy the same space without

Towards the end of my time in the scene shop, the towering gentleman playing St. Monica as a drag queen walked in. He was there for a fitting. The heels he’s wearing aren’t nearly tall enough to make the look feel completely authentic, but the actor in question is tall enough to make it work. And he’s got the right attitude. Played in the original production as, I believe, a Latina from New York, the actor borrows attitude and accent from Paula Dean.

As fine adjustments are made on the costume, I make it out of the costume shop and down the hall to the prop shop . . .  

fitting Saint Monica

UWM’ production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot runs March 9th – 13th at the UWM Mainstage Theatre. For reservations, call 414-229-4308.


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