Thursday, Oct. 30, 2008 | 2:39 p.m.
Have you ever been to a chef’s house for dinner? Pros in the kitchen are off duty when they get home; the last thing someone who sautés for a living wants to do after work is whip up a stir-fry. The same is true of nearly any profession – bartenders don’t mix drinks after shift; hairdressers don’t spend all evening on their coif. And wardrobe directors for Cirque du Soleil dress themselves in burlap sacks when they’re not back stage, shunning makeup, exotic fabrics and anything resembling a human-sized bug. Well, maybe. When Halloween comes around they make a point of not doing anything costume related, whatsoever.
Unless, that is, you get lucky and convince one or two to help you create the costume of your dreams…
It’s Friday afternoon and we’re strolling the aisles at Savers on East Tropicana Avenue, looking for I’m-not-exactly-sure-what, and from the pile of cotton and organza in our cart having great success. Guiding my second-hand store exploration are Ruben Permel and Kathy Wusnack, head and assistant head of wardrobe for Cirque du Soleil’s KA. From among the racks of mesh miniskirts, discarded T-shirts and once-loved dresses, Permel and Wusnack are snatching what they assure me is costuming gold – an extra-large white gown that might have served a bride, a prom queen or both; the shoulder-padded magenta blazer from a women’s skirt suit; and a pair of shiny brown leather shoes in an imitation snake print. With some heavy alterations, they say, these items will transform me into the notorious French queen, Marie Antoinette.
Most of our luck comes in the house wares section. In Permel’s and Wusnack’s imaginations table clothes become wide skirts; embroidered drapes are reborn as long flowing cuffs. A set of kitchen curtains transform into perky pantaloons with a scalloped edge of peek-a-boo lace. I stare hard at the growing mass of pink and cream fabric, trying to understand how any of this is going to make me look good, let alone like a 17th century royal known for her outrageous fashion sense, but I quell the doubts. Mine is not to question why. Or how.
In the back of Savers, in front of a distorted mirror, we hold an impromptu fitting. Permel pulls a measuring tape from his pocket and proceeds to chart my body from heal to crown, as Wusnack jots down the numbers that will be the key to assembling this puzzle. With my reflection curved awkwardly in the mirror, the measuring tape wrapped around my bust and the inquisitive eyes of fellow shoppers sizing up our trio and accompanying camera crew, I come to a conclusion: This is the closest to couture I may ever get.
Our purchases come to $44.63 after the $5 discount you get for spending more than $25, the items filling plastic bags a random mix from the around the mammoth store. Costuming, Permel and Wusnack tell me, is less about finding pieces that fit and more about picking up on potential. Nothing we have grabbed is in my size, but that seems like a trifling detail, as they talk advanced tailoring and design. With the right tools and training anything can be altered beyond the point of recognition. I realize sometime later that this applies to me, too.
A week later, I’m perched in a chair in the makeup and wig studio under the stage at Zumanity. Pictures of a pale-faced Marie Antoinette and shots of a sly-looking Kirsten Dunst as the queen in Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette form a small collage on the mirror. The movie’s soundtrack plays in the background and elaborate wigs from the production’s nightly shows sit on silent heads on nearly every flat surface in the room.
Alongside my chair, Zumanity’s Supervisor of Wigs & Makeup, Roger Stricker, dips brushes into pots of powder and blush with practiced efficiency. My skin fades to a porcelain white, and bright stains of pink form nearly fluorescent circles on the apples of my cheeks. Marie, Stricker explains, had extremely pale skin. It was both her natural skin tone and a mark of her wealth that she did not need to work in the sunshine and subject her face to a tan. In fact, the term “blue blood” comes from the very white and very thin skin common in the royal families of Europe that showed the blue blood in their veins underneath. Although it was due to inbreeding, it was still considered a physical demonstration of a royal’s great stature.
Layer after layer of powder and paint stacks up as my face disappears beneath this new visage. Roger draws on a set of heart-shaped lips, scarlet red, and daubs them with glitter for an extra sheen. Oversized eyelashes cloak iridescent eyes with eyeliner stretching them into a dramatic curve. For the finishing touch a black rhinestone beauty mark is glued to my cheek that would make Cindy Crawford jealous. After 45 minutes of opening, closing, smiling and pouting on command, I gape at a stranger in the mirror. I am one step closer to becoming the queen.
Ruben Permel has brought over his and Kathy’s completed outfit. The blazer has been turned around backwards and sewn into the bodice of the prom dress to create the top of the ensemble. Long cuffs made from our sheer drapes flow to my wrists and a line of trim from a set of kitchen curtains sets an elegant neckline. The rest of the kitchen curtains have morphed into a pair of adorable pantaloons that will be visible in our somewhat sexed up version of Marie. A massive skirt – open in the front – layers bed skirts and tablecloths over pillows on my hips to form the exaggerated look so popular in Marie’s time. It is, as they promised, unrecognizable from the $45 sack of fabric we’d left with a week before.
The icing on the proverbial cake is a towering wig: white, with a cluster of curls over one ear and a few feathers protruding from the hair. In the pink dress with draping fabric splayed about me in a wide arc, I do, in fact, resemble a cake -- perhaps the very one that Marie so infamously suggested the starving peasants of France snack on to relieve their hunger.
As Marie Antoinette I leave the dressing room and make my way across New York-New York’s casino floor, catching confused looks from gamblers and the occasional raised eyebrow from dealers in the pit. Outside on the bridge to MGM, tourists gawk, wave and pose for pictures. I spot a pair of women giving me an extra long stare and approach them with a smile.
“Hi, I’m Marie. Do you know how I can get to Paris?”
They giggle and shake my hand, point north up the Strip and say, “It’s right there.”
Beginning November 1, 2008, Las Vegas locals can purchase tickets to select performances of Mystere, KA or Zumanity for $49 per ticket on Category 2 and 3 seats. Call 1-800-963-9634 or visit any Cirque box office for more details.
This story originally appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.