You've Been Steampunked: From Musicals to Shakespeare, Goggles and Gears Are the Look DU Jour

By Wren, Celia | American Theatre, February 2013 | Go to article overview

You've Been Steampunked: From Musicals to Shakespeare, Goggles and Gears Are the Look DU Jour


Wren, Celia, American Theatre


IT'S A PHENOMENON THAT HAS INFILTRATED fashion, genre novels and the career of Robert Downey Jr. Now theatre seems to be the latest frontier for steampunk, the aesthetic--and, for some enthusiasts, lifestyle--that playfully recalls, revises and gives a sci-fi/alternative-history spin to Victorian style and technology.

The iconography favored by steampunkers--aeronaut goggles, stylized corsets, clockwork gears, mad-scientist laboratories cluttered with Industrial Revolution sprockets and pipes--has found its way into a number of recent stage productions. When Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith mounted My Fair Lady at her D.C. theatre this winter, she and costume designer Judith Bowden (who had previously collaborated on the musical at Canada's Shaw Festival) opted to dress the musical's Cockney characters in sassy steampunk attire.

To note other examples: The touring revival of Frank Wiklhorn's musical Jekyll & Hyde, slated to hit Broadway in April, features steampunk-flavored scenery and garb. Last month Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre launched a production of Around the World in 80 Days that incorporates steampunk visual elements. Another Philly group, Curio Theatre Company, had given Twelfth Night a steampunk flavor in 2010. Shakespeare in the Grove, in Virginia's Hampton Roads region, unveiled a steampunk Hamlet in June 2012. A few months later, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company offered a steampunk Titus Andronicus, with production design sponsored by Iron Wind Metals, a sci-fi and fantasy miniatures business. (For yet another example of steampunk-inspired costume flourishes, see the Production Notebook on Red Bull Theater of New York City's Volpone, page 34.)

The dance world hasn't been immune, either. Last summer, the D.C.-area contemporary ballet group MOVEIUS DANCE opened Flight of Fancy (A Steampunk Ballet) as part of the city's annual Capital Fringe festival. Showcasing a telescope-wielding aviator character and supporting dancers frolicking around in bloomers and corsets to an indie rock score, the piece won a "Pick of Fringe" award in the dance and physical theatre category.

And in 2013-14, stay tuned for Nebraska Theatre Caravan's steampunk The Fantasticks, a touring version of the production that director Carl Beck mounted at Omaha Community Playhouse in February 2012.

That's a lot of greasepaint action for steampunk, a whimsical but philosophically resonant tradition informed by the writings of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Jump-started in the 1980s by fiction writers Tim Powers, K. W. Jeter and James Blaylock, whose books envisioned eerily tweaked, alternative-history versions of the Victorian empire, steampunk gained additional prominence with the 1990 publication of The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's novel about a 19th-century dystopia that exploits mechanical computers. (Jeter is credited with coining the term "steampunk.")

The concept moved beyond literature when craft aficionados, fashion designers and sculptors began to create fanciful pocket watches, cog-and-rivet-laced millinery, phantasmagorical neo-Edwardian installations and other curiosities. Forming a distinctive subculture, creative-anachronism types began to dress up as pith-helmet-sporting explorers and Oscar Wilde-style aesthetes, picnicking in cemeteries or congregating at steampunk conventions or flocking to concerts by steampunk bands like Abney Park. Recently, the movement has spread to mainstream pop culture: Witness Justin Bieber's 2011 clockwork-gear-strewn video "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," or the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, which infuse the world of 221B Baker Street with a modern sensibility and mad-scientist flair.

With its emphasis on craftsmanship, salvaged materials and do-it-yourself philosophies, the steampunk lifestyle rebukes our own era's mass-produced design and throwaway consumerist ethos--a point lucidly made in Jeff VanderMeer and S. …

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