I dressed a futuristic Romeo and Juliet.
I dressed a Titus Andronicus that featured an outdoor bug zapper in the feast scene.
There was the 1920’s Twelfth Night, and a Macbeth with only nine actors.
Who could forget the ninety-minute modern dress Julius Caesar? –which turned out to be ninety minutes of screaming.
Oh …and a confusing Measure for Measure, staged in the round but produced on a proscenium stage. Think about that for a moment.
I’ve done Cymbeline twice. I’ve done Pericles twice –all with completely different vibes.
Yet, my very first professional production of a Shakespearean play is still one of the most unusual. This Love’s Labour’s Lost was updated to 1960’s Kennedy era, complete with a blinking Washington monument on the set in the background.
The Princess of France (no real first name, just The Princess of France) was first seen in the play wearing knockoff of Jackie Kennedy’s pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat. Ferdinand, the King of Navarre, was modeled after John F. Kennedy, while Jacquenetta, the country wench, was not-so-well likened to Marilyn Monroe. There was lots of sixties music to enhance the production, but this interpretation rested tightly on the assassination of Ferdinand –aka JFK.
The Princess quickly ditched her infamous pink suit after her first scene in the play. Several pages of script later, she and her ladies-in-waiting prepare for a 1960’s cotillion while speaking the Bard’s unchanged dialogue. They entered in period underwear and were directed to dress each other onstage. The actresses would throw strapless gowns on over their giant tulle crinolines and zip them up in front of the audience. The scene’s blocking was heavily choreographed. All four women finished dressing each other on cue, and off they went to a glamorous ball.
The director of this Love’s Labour’s Lost didn’t consider the danger of dressing the women onstage in strapless dresses. Neither did I at first. Sure enough, The zipper in the back of the Princess’s dress broke onstage on opening night. With no straps, there was no way to keep her gown on. She had to go to the ball in her Maidenform and crinoline. I hand-sewed her dress closed on her body the first chance she could get offstage.
Within twenty-four hours, all the zippers in the cotillion dresses were replaced with heavy-duty sleeping bag zippers. The audience in this theatre sat close and could easily see the enormous zippers, but that was better that seeing underwear at the fancy party. For the rest of the run of Love’s Labour’s Lost, I was on STRAPLESS GOWN WATCH. I waited in the wings with a needle and thread until all the women were safely dressed at the ball.
The Princess’s strapless cotillion dress substituted for Jackie Kennedy’s pink blood spattered suit when Ferdinand was assassinated. The dress had a maroon velvet bodice with a large white satin floor-length skirt –a big canvas for the impending red splatter.
But wait: the King of Navarre is assassinated offstage while the Princess is onstage.
How did we do this?
The dress had a secret.
Everyone went to the cotillion and was deliriously happy: lots of laughter, dancing, and movement. It was Camelot, after all. While the audience was distracted by all the fun and beauty, the Princess would sneak offstage and I would remove a top “clean” skirt, which hid an identical skirt underneath spotted with “blood”.
The Princess would sneak back onstage during all the commotion with her white skirt folded up to hide the stain in one hand, and a fake glass of red wine in her other hand. A party guest would bump into the Princess and she would mimic spilling the wine and release the skirt to reveal the stain. Tada! She laughed the wine stain off waving her empty glass around merrily. Camelot, Camelot, Camelot.
Yet Camelot was almost over.
Suddenly a messenger in a trench coat and fedora would enter and announce the assassination of Ferdinand, the King of Navarre. The Princess of France would finish the play in her wine (symbolically blood-like) stained gown.
This dress trick was a bit too clever.
The audience certainly gasped at the stain, but they didn’t understand that it was part of the show. The actors could hear the patrons whispering about it the rest of the play. Most of them thought the poor actress really spilled wine on her beautiful costume.
Whisper: “How are they going to get that stain out?”
Whisper: “That beautiful gown is ruined.”
Whisper: “Someone’s going to have to pay for that.”
There was a half hour left of Love’s Labour’s Lost after the spill, but the “stain” assassinated the play.
No one cared that Shakespeare’s characters were cleverly watching news reports about Ferdinand’s assassination on a vintage 1960’s television set.
No one cared when Jaquenetta’s delivered her last monologue in a copy of Marilyn Monroe’s Some Like It Hot dress.
We started calling the play, “Love’s Labour’s Stain”.
Letters were written to the theatre concerning the stain.
“Did the theatre have to replace that gorgeous dress?”
“You shouldn’t use real wine on stage.”
As the head of wardrobe, I kept getting asked how I got the wine stain out of the dress. Even after the show closed, I had to explain the trick over and over and over.
“There were two skirts.”
“It was a trick. It wasn’t real.”
“It’s just a play.”
Eventually, I got sick of all of the questions. I told people what they wanted to hear.
“Bleach and hot water,” I would say. “And a big scrub brush.”
“I just put the gown in the washing machine.”
“The wine stain was actually a hologram.”
My mock answers were satisfying enough and would quickly end the conversation.
Epilogue: the clean version of the Princess of France’s gown from Love’s Labour’s Lost was rented out to other theatres and appeared in countless professional and amateur productions. However, the stained skirt had little use once the show closed. A costume friend took the skirt and made a cute Rorschach inkblot jacket from the bloody remains.
JFK Assassination Busts in photo by Sarah Barker
Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay is part of a series for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage.