Dressed to Kill: Glam and Gore in Theatre at the McNay

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Murder and mayhem are themes front and center at the McNay Art Museum’s current exhibition Dressed to Kill: Glam and Gore in the Theatre, a provocative look at villains and femme fatales in theatre over the centuries.

“When you’re talking about glamour and gore, you’re talking about overblown, larger than life characters and emotions and passions,” says Jody Blake, Curator of the McNay’s Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. “You may have those about love, but maybe not about happily ever after! Even though the love may be sincere, you might have a tragic end. In the case of Dressed to Kill: Glam and Gore in Theatre, it’s all murder and mayhem, nobody dies a natural death.”

The exhibition includes costumes and drawings for some of the most memorable seductresses and fiends of musical stage. Designs for Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Bizet’s Carmen, Puccini’s Turanot, and Elton John’s Lestat highlight a great strength of the Tobin Collection: suites of costume drawings for entire productions. The drawings, along with the costumes borrowed for this exhibition, reveal connections between theatre designs and haute couture, and set the mood and sense of characters in a subliminal, but powerful way.

“If costume design and set design are done well,” Blake says, “they aren’t calling attention to themselves for them own sake and detracting from their performances or the ensemble. What I discovered and visitors will discover with this exhibition is how important costumes can be in establishing. The character of the individuals so that you know immediately who’s the villain, who is not.

“One of the characters is from the Puccini Opera Turandot, maybe not as well know as Madame Butterfly, but she is sort of a legendary Chinese princess who’s taken a vow of chastity, and when princes come from all around the world to try to get her hand in marriage, she sets a trial for them where they have to answer riddles. Of course, none of them answer them and so it is “off with their head.” Throughout, the lyrics of the opera talk about her being like ice. So, at the beginning of the opera, what color is she wearing? Blue of course! And then at the end when a prince comes along and finally answers the riddle and she falls in love with him, you can imagine what color – she’s goes to gold and then she goes to red. All of that symbolism is built into the costume.

“Another one of the rich productions, Blake says, the most recent one and the only Broadway musical as opposed to opera, is Lestat, which is based on Anne Rice’s novels.

“There are costumes for the chorus in which the fabric – mind you these are 19th century dresses, women in skirts, men in top coats and top hats, the pattern that is printed on them is like the veins of trees or the circulatory system and, of course, Lestat (a vampire) is looking at them and he is feeling quite thirsty,” says Blake.

So, many things are done conceptually in the case of these productions with costume that maybe they work subliminally on you when you’re in the audience – it should just have that effect of communicating the meaning.

The exhibition is a combination of drawings from 5 productions plus more than a dozen costumes from Don Giovanni and Lulu from the Met, and Lestat from Warner Bros.

“In terms of storytelling, we all know those villains that you just love to hate and you know they are just despicable but you’re rather interested in them.”

Dressed to Kill: Glam and Gore in the Theatre will run through June 5, 2016. The exhibition is organized by the McNay Art Museum and is a program of the Tobin Theatre Arts Fund.