Le fin de siecle

was a funny time for fashion.

The world hadn't yet tired of Victorian womanly curves, but modernity was forcing bust-lines lower and hemlines higher. Add a fad for feathers so crazed it led to the establishment of the Audubon Society. That may explain why the master playwright of the early 20th century, George Bernard Shaw, and his spicy tale of sex and philosophy, Man and Superman, currently on stage at the Newmark Theater, is also a costume drama of the corset sort.

Portland Center Stage's artistic director Chris Coleman enlisted the help of Chattanooga, Tenn., costume designer Sydney Roberts (last seen here dressing PCS's production of The Seagull). Shaw's was a tall order: first, accurately represent this period of frou-frou and flux; and, second, use those feathers and folds of silk to help advance the drama. Recently, I spoke with Roberts from Chattanooga about her feats of pleats:

Willamette Week: What do the costumes convey in Man and Superman?

Sydney Roberts: Of all Shaw's plays, this one seems to be about, well, tits and ass. There's also the battle of the sexes. Over the course of the play, I wanted to develop these women from younger girls into...

...full-blown sex goddesses?

In the context of Edwardian England, yes. This means that the clothes move toward more sensual, exaggerated shapes.

Did Shaw provide any costume notes in his original stage directions?

Oh, yes--he was really anal about it. But I made design choices that suited our production and our actors. They should feel the costumes illustrate their vision of their characters. In the script, Shaw describes the entrance of the heroine, Ann Whitefield, "She comes in wearing her own contrived mourning outfit of violet and black." Ann's character is so fussy and fashionable that she must add color to her mourning dress, a lavender-and-white barberpole-striped cummerbund. In another scene, a character comes in with "a whole dead bird on her hat." Since the protests were going on outside our costume-shop window, the milliner for the show, Randie Saxxon, made it into a peace dove with an olive branch in its mouth.

How are subtleties of character distinguished by costume, for instance between Violet Robinson and Ann?

Ann is more of the vamp, while Violet blossoms into a beautiful young matron with standing in the community. She also softens as her marriage becomes public. We made good use of feathers: Ann was puffy, light maribou; Violet was angular, with turkey feathers that shot up vertically. Violet wore gray, not black, during the mourning scene, to show that she had already married and moved on.

Which costume presented a challenge?

I had thought Jack Tanner should move in an opposite direction to the rest of the cast. Man and Superman starts out with a mourning scene but ends with life--a marriage. Everyone else's costumes start out dark and move to light. I had planned on Tanner doing the opposite, because he's a rebel and a revolutionist. But the director [Coleman] thought Jack should be a formal, spiffy dresser. And Peter Ganim [who plays Tanner] happened to look very good in black. The truth is, Edwardian men typically wore black and gray, even unconventional men. We ultimately chose to reflect his nonconformity by giving him wild hair.

Did you add modern costume touches to make the play comprehensible to a 2003 audience?

Absolutely. No man in 1904 wore pants as tight as our actors did. For the women, we had to build that turn-of-the century silhouette. Draper Paula Buchert constructed new corsets for the young women that were detailed copies of period corsets, with judicious padding to get those curves and that tiny waist. I can't tell you how many lovely actresses with modern athletic bodies that I've padded.

Man and Superman
Portland Center Stage at the Newmark Theatre, Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 SW Broadway, 274-6588. 7 pm Tuesdays- Wednesdays, 8 pm Thursdays - Saturdays, 2 and 7 pm Sundays. Closes April 13. $12-$47.