The 18th-century French writer Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais had a lot on his mind while he was writing the comedies “The Barber of Seville” in 1775 and “The Marriage of Figaro” in 1778 — two plays that begin their run in repertory through Sunday, May 4, at McCarter Theater.
One concern was the advancement of philosophical arguments for human liberties, and his plays — which follow the exploits of a crafty servant and his aristocrat master — are forged with the ideas of European Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
Another was how appearance and an understanding of fashion give individuals social power and characters stage presence. And the playwright is very specific in his notes about costumes.
And still another was his desire to create witty and sexy plays.
Costume designer Camille Assaf takes a break in McCarter’s wardrobe shop to elaborate on recreating Beaumarchais’ world in clothes. To stay with that theme, note that the 30-something brunette in royal blue sweater, bright scarf, dark slacks, and simple footwear looks the part of a spirited designer.
But first, the Paris-born Sorbonne philosophy graduate-turned-costumer — whose 2001 thesis was “The Body in French Baroque Opera” — is excited to talk about the era’s intellectual revolution.
“It opened up a political philosophy that was all about democracy and recognized equality between all human beings. Although feminism was not part of enlightenment values, there was progress. There was the idea that all human beings had equal rights. It went to the founding of America. They are incredible and powerful ideas and ideologies. They are things that we still need to fight for,” says Assaf, a citizen of both the United States and France.
Assaf says that she is interested in the three main writers of the period — Denis Diderot (essayist and minor playwright know for his intellectual examinations), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (whose 1762 “On the Social Contract” shaped the Declaration of Independence), and Francois-Marie Arouet or Voltaire (whose plays and writings advocated civil liberties and tolerance) — writers, she says, who “influence the way we think about the world.”
“What I particularly find enthralling about these writers and literature of the 18th century is the spirit,” says Assaf. “There’s a lightness in the way (ideas) are expressed. There’s a wit that is delightful, and I wonder if it comes from a disenfranchisement of the individual spirit from the weight of religion. At the moment when the human mind comes free from thinking (of dogma) then things become really fun: Reason (becoming) more important than faith and being an avenue to faith. I think before the 18th century the clergy had enormous power, and people were afraid of God and to think for themselves.”
She adds that the above ideas also link her to the Figaro plays’ adaptor and director, Stephen Wadsworth, known to McCarter audiences for his past adaptation and direction of the comedies “The Triumph of Love,” “Changes of Heart,” and “The Game of Love and Chance” by another 18th-century French writer, Pierre Marivaux. “We both have a passion for the 18th century — the esthetics, the politics, the philosophy, the art, and the music.”
Assaf says that a mentor put her in touch with Wadsworth in 2012, and the two began working on an 18th-century opera. “We met for Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ which is what I always wanted to design. Then we worked on ‘Cosi fan Tutte,’ another of the three Mozart and (Lorenzo) Da Ponte operas,” she says, noting the librettist for those two productions and the composer’s adaptation of “The Marriage of Figaro.” “It was big break meeting a director who shared the same passion for the same sort of things.” She will join Wadsworth later this year to work on Beethoven’s “Fidelio” at the Santa Fe Opera.
To create the costumes, the designer writes that she looked at “French paintings from the second half of the 18th century. Interior domestic scenes were very popular at the time and were great research for me because they are full of costume details, textures, and colors. Because the plays are set in Spain, I also looked at Spanish research, particularly the shape of the clothes and the color scheme in Goya’s work.”
While she says that the period’s clothing expresses the era’s lightness and joy, there were challenges in creating this two-part production. “The two shows are very different. They explore different worlds. That gave me an opportunity to develop color pallettes.”
Assaf says that “The Barber of Seville” has Spanish flair — darker tones, damask brocade, and black lace — while there is a French flair to “The Marriage of Figaro” — pink lace brocade and embroidered tulle. “There is definitely a jump in the spectacularness of the costumes,” she says.
There is also something that conveys sexuality in the Figaro costumes. “The women are corseted, and it immediately gives them a different posture. It puts them on edge a little bit. There is the gracefulness of a dance as if the movement is through the extremities. They stand straighter. There is a sophistication in the way that they carry themselves. The corset has very erotic power. It is interesting. In a society that feels more restrictive, there is a lot of sexuality that is displayed. In the case of the women for instance their bosoms are very much on display. That gives them a power over men. It is hackneyed, but it is real. I think the actors really feel it. They know that they’re attractive. It makes them objects of desire. It gives them a wonderful hourglass figure. It is one of the best eras of fashion history for a costume silhouette.”
The men, she says, “have coats that open and have pleats in the back that are almost like skirts. When a man wears a skirt it brings about a certain refinement and way to swagger, a grace. I think it is about grace for this period. I don’t think that means that (men) lose their erotic masculism. But it is challenged. They audience will see that the men in the play will have a tremendous masculine presence. Those paradoxes are quiet exciting. The notions of desire and attraction are at the core of the plays.”
Assaf is also aware of another paradox, a woman creating such costumes in a contemporary era. “In a general, I am very connected to the past. I am not fully living in the 21st century,” she says.
She says that “the challenge is to go back and forth and to work within a historical context and then make it relevant to today’s world. And we do make adjustments. There were certain ways that cloths were kept that are not attractive to our eyes, so we have to make adjustments. Some of our tailoring is modern.”
The daughter of parents who met during the Paris student protest in the late 1960s, Assaf says that her French musicologist mother took her to the opera and her American translator and art history aficionado father who took her “to every church in Italy” to see art. However, she was interested in what people were wearing in the paintings and in the productions as well as how the clothing related to the work, especially to the music. “That was my particular point of entry. I saw ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’ The costumes were historic. I felt as if the costumes made Mozart sing. I found it enthralling.”
The decision to study design, however, would have to wait. “You did not go to art school,” she says, emphasizing the sentence as if it were an understood commandment. “I studied philosophy. It did not cross my mind that I could (move from) the academic path and be a practitioner — as opposed to (being) theoretical.”
But eventually, she says, “I got sick of academia. I was tired of that life. We were thinking too much, and we were not participating enough. I wanted to participate, and I set sail to a new continent. In six months I changed everything. For me it was like the forefathers. I went for freedom. My first step was New York. I didn’t really know what I wanted. I did an internship at W magazine because I was interested in fashion. Then I met theater people and attended theater. I discovered a world that really spoke to me. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a costume designer. I was accepted at Yale, so I really landed in New Haven.” She earned an MFA in scenic and costume design in 2004.
In addition to costuming dozen of works in the United States, Europe, and Asia (including the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics), Assaf also married a Northwestern University faculty member, became a mother (her son is now four years old), and is establishing her practice in Chicago.
Reflecting on her profession, Assaf says that she would like for audiences to think about the work that goes into making the characters come alive in the recreated world of the stage. “There are five people in the workshop, hand-sewing sequins or cutting a cloth. It takes weeks and months. It’s amazing when it is on stage, and when it appears on stage it looks easy. It takes a lot of sweat and a lot of tears. It’s frustrating: fabrics you can’t find; ones that you find and don’t end up working; a silhouette that you were hoping to achieve doesn’t work on an actor. Every change puts more time to it. It is a lot of arduous labor.”
Fittingly her thoughts on clothes then move from the stage to the street. “I think women and men dress to project a certain image and power dressing is essential in our society. It could be the pants suit of the first lady or the high heels on a woman to go out. It could be the perfect Armani suit for a man. It is power dressing. You see it at the airport and on the streets. It’s fun to watch, to see how people know how to dress. And how they don’t dress but should. If they did the world would be better place. We get lazy. We all do, even me, even though it is my job. There are all sorts of things that clothes can give us that we should explore more: power and playfulness. The beauty of a print. The sensuality of a fabric. The vibrancy of a color. There’s a lot to be said about paying attention to clothes.”
“It’s something to think about,” she says philosophically.
The Figaro Plays, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Adam Green as Figaro, Neil Bledsoe as Count Almaviva, and Naomi O’Connell as Rosine. $20 and up. 609-258-2787 www.mccarter.org.
The Barber of Seville, Tuesday through Sunday, April 1 to 6; Saturdays, April 12 and 19; Sunday, April 20; Friday through Sunday, April 25 to 27; Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, May 1, 3, and 4.
The Marriage of Figaro, Wednesday through Sunday, April 9 to 13; Thursday through Saturday, April 17 to 19; Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, April 24, 26, and 27; Friday and Saturday, May 2 and 3.
The Marriage of Figaro, Thursday, April 17, 7:30 p.m. Post show discussion. Pride night.
The Barber of Seville, Sunday, April 20, 2 p.m. Post show discussion. ASL interpreted performance.
The Marriage of Figaro, Thursday, April 24, 2 p.m. Audio described performance.
The Barber of Seville, Thursday, May 1, 7:30 p.m. Post show discussion. Pride night.
The Barber of Seville, Saturday, May 3, 2 p.m. Open captioned performance.