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The '60s Swing in The Relapse

Costume designer Ann Emo (pictured above, looking vaguely like the Mona Lisa) turned to fashion icons of the 1960s to inspire her work for The Relapse, a Restoration comedy opening this Friday at the Irish Classical Theater.

The English Restoration was a joyful and boisterous time in England. After years of oppressive rule, the Puritans were out. Charles II returned from exile on the continent, thereby restoring the monarchy. The good times were back.

Theater, which had been outlawed under the Puritans (along with such other debaucheries as the celebration of Christmas), returned, but the theater of the Restoration was far different from the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater that still resonated in memory. To begin, there were actresses on stage—the first England had seen. The theater was now a purely upper class affair, obsessed with happy superficial concerns, comical, sophisticated, gossipy and sexually charged. The proscenium stage was imported from the continent. And…costumes were fashionable and elaborate.

In preparing to direct John Vanbrugh’s 1696 comedy, The Relapse, these elements resonated with Derek Campbell, who decided to set the current Irish Classical Theatre Company production of the play in London of the 1960s, the Carnaby Street era, a time of high fashion and sexual revolution when England relearned to swing again “like a pendulum do,” after the oppressively conformist 1950s.

The plots of Restoration comedies are always convoluted and interwoven with sub-intrigues. In The Relapse, a rakish husband succumbs to an adulterous affair while his virtuous wife resists temptation with difficulty. (Needless to say, after its initial popularity, the Victorians found the play distasteful, but modern audiences have embraced it anew).

In terms of making a visual statement about the era, realize that the Andrews Theatre, home to the Irish Classical Theatre Company, is an arena stage, making scenery minimal and foisting focus onto the costumes. A Restoration comedy is always a costume event anyway—and the moving the setting to the 1960s provides new challenges and opportunities.

Enter costume designer Ann Emo.

The resident costume designer for the theater department at Buffalo State College, Ann received her M.F.A. from NYU Tisch School of the Arts and began her career in New York City, designing for stage, dance, film, and opera for many years. She was the resident costume designer for the Theater and Dance Alliance (TADA), a children’s theater organization whose performers are children and young adults. She moved to Buffalo in the early 1990s, and continued her work as a costume designer and technician at Studio Arena Theatre, where she designed over 10 productions. She has also designed for the Theater of Youth, Shakespeare in Delaware Park, and the Jewish Repertory Theater of Western New York, as well as for GEVA Theater Center in Rochester.

Emo began with her own recollections of 1960s fashion and embarked on a process of research, including fashion magazines and films of the period, such as Cool It Carol, Pete Walker’s 1970 film about an innocent couple who abandon small town life to pursue success in London’s adult entertainment culture; and Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic, Blowup, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, and David Hemmings, in which a “mod” London photographer believes that he has unwittingly photographed a murder. She also watched Pirate Radio, a 2009 film about 1960s rock culture.

Luckily, the fashion of the 1960s were fetishistically and self-consciously well-documented. Fashion was highly important during the era, and socially coded—much as it was during the Restoration period.

“I began by reading the script a number of times,” says Emo. “I then began to pull together ideas for clothes that would communicate character, relationships, and social status.”

Emo reveals that audiences may recognize such visual references as Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, and Jackie Kennedy.

“It’s been a whole lot of fun,” promises Emo, “and it really works for the play!”

Susan Drozd has designed the wigs. Ron Scwartz has designed the scenery. The large cast includes Vincent O’Neill, Chris Corporandy, Todd Benzin, Jim Molloy, Peter Jaskowiak, Adam Rath, Beth Donohue, and Leah Russo. The Relapse runs from January 15-February 14. Call 853-ICTC for ticket information.