The costume designer pulls the corset strings as tight as they will go around the actor’s torso, restricting his breathing but allowing him to catch a glimpse of being a 19th-century woman for a moment.
The actor, Joey Fabrizi, stars in “Cloud 9,” a play which features gender swapping among the characters and actors.
“It’s challenging for the actors because they are playing characters that are very different from themselves, but that’s what acting is,” said April Shawhan, the play’s director and an adjunct associate professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.
Shawhan also said the swapping helps convey the play’s message: to accept people for who they are. Written by Caryl Churchill, the play will open in Macgowan Hall Friday.
The two-act play begins in 1880 in colonial Africa and transitions to London in 1979 for the second act, drawing a comparison between colonial oppression and sexual repression. While almost 100 years pass in time, the characters only age by 25 years, a plot device to compare a single family under two different sets of societal norms, said Shawhan.
The story centers around Clive, his wife Betty, their children and a host of characters dealing with their changing sexual identities and personal feelings.
Brigid Abreu, a fourth-year theater student, said the gender swapping is intended to make the audience question the normalcy or absurdity of societal standards imposed upon each gender. In the first act, Abreu plays Edward, a 9-year-old boy, and in the second, she plays Betty, his 54-year-old mother.
Abreu said “Cloud 9″ is almost like two separate plays, requiring the actors to mentally differentiate their two roles. She said she uses physicality to help her realize the differences.
“You pick spots on your body that those characters kind of lead their life with, and it’s really helpful to get inside their heads a little bit,” Abreu said.
Abreu said having the characters switch genders highlights the way a comment that would traditionally seem “normal” when aimed at a woman, instead sounds absurd when directed at a man. For instance, her character Edward, who she said finds a proclivity for traditionally feminine things, is constantly told not to play with the doll he loves. Abreu said the audience is supposed to feel strange seeing a woman being told not to play with dolls.
In addition to tackling societal issues, costume designer Chanèle Casaubon said “Cloud 9″ also poses challenges in the technical departments, particularly costume design. Lauren Cucarola and Casaubon, both UCLA graduate students specializing in costume design, said they split the task of creating costumes for the characters, with Cucarola handling costumes from 1880 and Casaubon designing those from 1979.
Casaubon said the costume design has to allow for the physical differences in the gender-swapped roles. The designers said they were able to help the actors transform from male to female by using smaller patterns on the fabric that de-emphasize the size of the actor.
“It’s definitely interesting putting (Fabrizi) in a bra that’s padded like a rock and getting him all corset-ed up,” Cucarola said.
The costume design also contributes to the play’s themes, providing visual representation of the emotional journeys and personal revolutions that the characters experience, said Casaubon. She also said choosing a fabric texture or thickness, or adding extra garments that are not strictly necessary, gives the audience physical impressions of the characters’ personalities.
“My approach to Maud, the grandma, she’s very at odds with everything, very traditional. So my picture was, she’s a couch. She’s upholstery. She’s weighted down by the world she lives in,” Cucarola said.
Although the costumes and settings of the play are far removed from the present, Abreu said the relevance of the play is alive in today’s culture.
“(Churchill) is not saying all the problems have been solved 100 years later,” she said. “She’s saying we’re starting to look at these things and they’re changing, and I think that’s why the play is still relevant today because we can look at this play and say, that was the ’70s, where are we now?”