by Michael J. Freedman
Associate Director of Public Relations and Manager of Online Content
On a cool autumn morning, a couple hundred students from five Western New York high schools took in an unusual theatrical performance in Niagara University's Gallagher Center. Judging by their reactions, it was clear that the attendees were emotionally engaged by the one-hour play.
Most laughed. Some cringed in opposition of the characters' conniving behavior. Less than a handful of the teens stared with puzzled expressions, impressive considering they were watching a medieval farce transcribed during the 15th century.
"La Farce de Maitre Pathelin" ("The Farce of Mr. Pathelin") was originally performed by itinerant companies in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. It is still a part of the French canon, although it is rarely performed because the antiquated language and period allusions in the text do not always resonate with a contemporary audience.
Those challenges did not deter Dr. Henrik Borgstrom from writing a new adaptation of the text for Le Théâtre de la Chandelle Verte, a French-language touring company that he has been involved with since 2006. Borgstrom estimates that it took him about 16 months to research and write the new adaptation, a process that necessitated several visits to the Bibliothèque Nationale and medieval drama archives in Paris.
"The show's script, especially the jokes, had to be adapted specifically for a 21st century audience made up primarily of non-native speakers of French," explained the chair of Niagara University's department of modern and classical languages. "Most editions of this play contain hundreds of footnotes to explain the 15th century references."
The troupe brought Borgstrom's adaptation to life at Niagara on Nov. 4, 2011, approximately five years after seeds for the show were first planted on Monteagle Ridge. It was then that Borgstrom, performing in an earlier production for Chandelle, sought out Costume Technology and Design Professor Marilyn Deighton for assistance in repairing an actor's outfit.
Several months later, Borgstrom emailed Deighton to gauge her interest in designing costumes for a new show that he was working on, "La Farce de Maitre Pathelin." Deighton originally declined the invitation citing scheduling restraints but, in true farce form, the show's itinerary took an unexpected turn when one of its primary actors found out she was pregnant, postponing the show's official opening until October 2011.
Over coffee, Borgstrom and Deighton reviewed elaborate sketches for the costumes, which were intended to grossly exaggerate the actors' body shapes in the style of medieval French puppet shows. It was also necessary that they be light enough to allow for acrobatic stage play and maintain the flexibility to fit into a suitcase for manageable transportation.
"For this I needed not just a talented tailor, but a skilled costume engineer," Borgstrom noted.
Deighton devised a technique similar to Victorian bustles, but with the plastic boning sewn directly into the seams. She would then pattern the shaped pieces, using a hula-hoop as a guide for the characters' waistlines. The horizontal circumference of Borgstrom's character, Guillaume Joceaulme, measured 88 inches. The exaggerated waistline for Pathelin was even rounder.
Two of the costumes were made out of silk noil (raw silk) because the material is light and responds well to dyeing and laundering. Borgstrom's costume was made out of a drapery material that is embroidered with a fleur de lis pattern and Pathelin's out of a wooly knit for the texture and look of a ragged commoner's garment.
"Needless to say, these costumes were totally different from anything I've ever done before," Deighton admitted.
One sticking point: Deighton estimated that the costumes would cost at least $1,000 for materials alone, a steep price for a small theater troupe.
A few weeks went by before Borgstrom returned to Deighton with a request that she co-sign an application for a summer research stipend from Niagara University's Research Council. He suggested that half of the $5,000 award would be used to defray the expenses of hiring the actors while the other half would be used for costuming.
When the application was approved in spring 2011, the project began to move ahead again, but challenges remained. For starters, two of the show's three actors lived out of town, meaning that Deighton could build only Borgstrom's costume until the other actors arrived for summer rehearsals.
"I had about 15 minutes to take measurements of the actors and then had to work with dress forms, but of course dress forms don't move," Deighton remarked.
By the time the actors, Francine Conley-Scott and David Whiteley, landed in Western New York, Deighton had designed mockups for them to try on while they rehearsed.
"While they were rehearsing, I was able to see what worked and what I needed to change. I made changes to my patterns and garments right then and there," Deighton said. "It was good for the actors, too, because it gave them an idea of what types of movements are going to work and not work."
Despite a few additional obstacles that arose - the bosom area for one of Conley-Scott's characters, for instance, had to be plentiful but removable for the actor's shift to a male role (and washing) - Deighton had the costumes finished in a week. (Deighton's solution was to use a snap-on, makeshift bra that was filled with Styrofoam pellets, similar to those found in beanbags.)
"Since our production has no set at all, our costumes become the 'set,' and the exaggerated body shapes give the actors multiple opportunities for physical comedy," Borgstrom said. "As you can imagine, Francine's enormous faux bosom is an endless source of cheap gags. Also, because Marilyn constructed my fat-suit with plastic and metal boning, somewhat like a Chinese lantern, I can literally crouch down into my costume, making it look like I am being swallowed up by my own gigantic body."
Conley-Scott added that the interplay between spoken word and physicality is part of the show's charm. "Imagination is a muscle that you have to work, and we give the audience that responsibility," she said. "I know that when I go to see theater, I don't necessarily want to be told what to think about everything that's happening."
In the fall of 2011, Le Théâtre de la Chandelle Verte performed "La Farce de Maitre Pathelin" more than a dozen times at various universities, including NU, the University at Buffalo, Ithaca College, Hartwick College (Oneonta), the University of Scranton (Pa.) and Whittier College (Los Angeles). A general national tour will get under way this fall with stops set up in Williamsburg, Va., Burlington, Vt., and St. Paul, Minn.