Man Made of Words: Risa Dye’s Costume for the Fool

Jester with a Lute by Frans Hals

A Fool was the king’s personal entertainer.  Although he probably displayed some skills we would now associate with clowning or physical comedy, the most important part of his job was the juggling of words.  A Fool could tease the king, as no other member of the Court would dare to do, and could state with impunity what others around him were thinking–and perhaps even saying–in private.  Riddles and other verbal antics were his stock-in-trade. 

There were also “natural Fools,” mentally disabled men kept by rulers who found their behaviors amusing, but although some critics have suggested that Lear’s Fool was of this type, that interpretation has by now been out of fashion for more than fifty years.

The usual costume of the Fool was motley—a multi-colored geometric pattern, often consisting of red, green, and yellow diamonds—but for this production, the Fool is dressed in words.

The Fool's post-modern motley

I asked costume designer Risa Dye whose idea it was to incorporate text into the Fool’s costume, and she told me the idea came out of her design process.  “I was asked to make wall-worthy designs for [a fundraising event].   I was using a collage method to create the renderings, and suddenly I thought that collage would be a wonderful way to make the costume.  I started tracing a pattern shape on newsprint, then decided to use text on the costume itself.”

The text, which Risa hand-stamps onto the yardage, consists of lines from another play, but only isolated words will be legible to the audience, and Risa says the overall effect should be of old newspapers, announcements, or an assemblage of scraps from recycle bins.   “[Director Jubilith Moore] said she wants the Fool to come from the Land of Garbage…a dark, discarded world.”  For the same reason, the fabric for the Fool’s costume consists of recycled bed sheets and canvas, which Risa has dyed light gray and might re-dye to make darker and more somber. 

Armor for a doomed princess

In contrast to the Fool’s costume, Cordelia’s costumes will be big, brightly colored, and more like Noh costumes, with multiple layers and components (kimono, hakama, obi).   Risa says that what she loves most about Noh costume is the construction of a “sculpture on the body” and that, in costuming Cordelia, she asks herself, “How can I create a new body on top of the body while staying true to Shakespearean form?”   Cordelia will wear different costumes in the two acts.  Each opulent carapace of cloth is a mark of Station—The Princess, The Warrior—that dwarfs the woman inside it. 

The most startling answer Risa gave to any of my questions was her response to my asking how she decided the Fool should wear a hood.  (Hoods were popular in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but this hood is of a more modern type.)  After first quipping that she likes hoods, Risa elaborated, saying that she does not want the Fool’s head to be just a small, familiar shape sitting on a neck.  “The audience should wonder whether he is human or not.”  This suggestion, and the fact that we had just been talking about a dark, discarded world, made me think of how often one almost passes an amorphous pile of clothing and debris on Market Street before realizing that an unlucky person is trying to sleep under it.   

I admit that I am still attached to the notion that the Fool’s costume reflects his craft as a wordsmith, but I see now that the design has broader thematic implications.  It remarks upon the contrast between Cordelia’s disinheritance, which leaves her estranged from her family but still Queen of France, and the Fool’s eviction onto a wet and lonely heath, where–like a twenty-first century homeless person who uses scavenged newspaper, garbage bags, and cardboard to protect himself from rain–he finds a way to live, at least for a time, and if not all his words make sense immediately, they do if one takes the time to listen.

Risa Dye, whimsical and wise

Now good my lord, lie here and rest awhile.

Make no noise, make no noise; draw the curtains:
so, so, so. We’ll go to supper i’ the morning. So, so, so. 

And I’ll go to bed at noon.

(from King Lear)

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One Response to Man Made of Words: Risa Dye’s Costume for the Fool

  1. Linda Anderson says:

    Thank you for the review of the costumes. Risa is my niece and I AM SO PROUD OF HER!!!!

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