The Huntington Theatre Company’s 2013-2014 season will soon get off to a roaring start with The Jungle Book, a new stage adaptation by Tony-winning director Mary Zimmerman that draws on both Disney’s 1967 animated flick and Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 stories. Produced in association with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and playing at the BU Theatre from September 7 through October 13, the musical about a young “man cub” and his jungle adventures features a 12-member band with Western jazz and traditional Indian instruments and a 19-member cast that includes The Improper’s own recent pick for best local actor. But Mara Blumenfeld’s stunning costumes also play a starring role. Blumenfeld is a veteran costumer designer whose work was last seen in Boston at the Huntington’s production of Candide two years ago, and she’s a longtime collaborator with Zimmerman—but this show presented some uncharted territory. “The biggest challenge from the costume standpoint is, aside from Mowgli and the little girl at the end, everyone else in the show is an animal. So the big question is, how are you going to deal with that?” says Blumenfeld. “We did not want it to be everybody in big, fuzzy, plushy mascot costumes. That we knew from the beginning.” Speaking by phone from her home base in Chicago, Blumenfeld filled us in on traveling halfway around the world for research and going through a whole “graveyard of monkey-tail prototypes.”

You and several other members of the production team got to travel to India for research. Can you tell us a bit about the trip and how it influenced your designs?

We went two Decembers ago, December of 2011, and we were there for 10 days. We were in Rajasthan in northern India, which is the area where Kipling grew up when he was a child…. Dan [set designer Dan Ostling] and I tend to be designers who have a really restrained, controlled, tight palette to our work. And one of the things that was really eye-opening and liberating was in India the use of color and pattern is so much more expansive than a lot of our Western aesthetic tends to be. So you have hot pink next to bright orange next to lime green next to yellow, and it’s all this sort of riot of color, both in the clothing people wear and the level of decoration and ornamentation that you see in the architecture. There’s not a wall or a shop window that doesn’t have that level of joyousness and explosion of color. I think, for both Dan and I, that was a real revelation and very freeing to allow ourselves to embrace that kind of aesthetic and the idea of pattern on top of pattern.

Most of the characters are members of the animal kingdom, which must have posed an interesting challenge. How did you approach it? 

Whatever we did, we knew that the human being inside the costume had to be paramount and not be encumbered by a lot of costume gimmickry. And in both looking at our time in India and looking at a lot of research, we sort of came to the realization that we don’t have to make them be animals. They can have animal attributes: They can have tails, they can have claws, ears, whatever it is. But the vocabulary we were working in was in the realm of these traditional Indian costumes, and also to a certain extent with some of the characters—for example, the elephants—of British costumes of the 19th century, because there’s that huge influence of the British Raj during that period when Kipling was a child himself. The characters of the elephants, they’re kind of military—the English-in-India influence. Another place where that British element came in was in the vultures, which are based on this idea of the classic Victorian undertakers. So with each animal grouping, it was about finding what is the essential thing that indicates “animal.” Is it the ears for the elephants? Is it the fur collars for the wolves? Is it the tails for the monkeys? So it was really identifying what is the animalistic element that’s sort of iconic. That became our guiding principle for approaching the design. And there’s also this whole sense of class structure. You have Shere Khan and Bagheera, who are the big cats of the jungle, sort of the royalty, the kings of the jungle. So their costumes are based much more on these very elaborate, ornate clothes that the maharajahs wore. They’re very elegant, very regal, very decorated, versus the monkeys who are sort of more scrappy and everyday. So there was also that sense of priority and hierarchy in the creatures. 

When you look at the costumes individually, was there one that was the most challenging?

One that was a huge amount of work but really gratifying was the Peacock Lady. That was one of the really early images that Mary had. Often with her shows, there is a central image that’s the germ of the idea, and you sort of don’t know what it all means till you get to the end. But she always, from very early on, had the idea of framing the story with this bookended Victorian child in his glum little nursery, and that the thing that is our conveyance to the world of the jungle and of the imagination was this mysterious, otherworldly Peacock Lady. It’s an error, in that [the colorful] peacocks are male. But it was this idea of combining the image of a Victorian bustle dress, which has a shape that mimics the shape of a peacock, with the big bustle tail. So she had the image of this mysterious figure—Is she a woman? Is she a bird?—and her being the thing that pulls the child/Mowgli into the world of the jungle, and then at the end brings him back to reality. That costume, because she’s on stilts and seven and a half feet tall, had a lot of technical demands. It is making a haute couture dress, a single custom-made thing that requires hours and hours of work. And it’s only on stage for a very short amount of time, but it’s one of those things where Mary said, “I know this isn’t going to occupy a lot of time on stage, but it’s the first thing we see that takes us into the jungle.” And the other significance is the peacock is the national bird of India. She is India, in a way.

How did you come to costume design?

I started out acting from the time I was a little kid—worked at a small equity theater all through high school, and ran props and wardrobe, and acted in the non-equity kids’ shows. I came to Northwestern totally thinking I was going to be an actor. I went to a very small school, grew up right outside Philadelphia, and like a lot of young performers you’re kind of a big fish in a small pond. And then you get to Northwestern, and it’s a this huge impressive group of people, and you realize, “Huh, I’m like pretty average. I’m OK, but I’m not anything all that.” [Laughs]… I randomly in freshman year got assigned my winter quarter in the costume shop. The guy who would eventually become my teacher, my mentor, who was the costume professor, was designing one of the university shows. And I remember seeing his sketches and just being blown away. It sounds so stupid and naïve, but it was one of those realizations of like, “Oh, you can do this as a job.” … Even though it’s been years since I’ve been on a stage—and if I had to get up on stage in front of anybody I’d probably just throw up at this point—I think my initial history and background as a performer is one of my assets as a costume designer. Even now, I still love playing dress-up, and I do try stuff on. If I’m going to ask an actor to wear something, I want to know what it feels like, so I’m trying out the monkey tails and trying out the elephant ears.… I think that’s the thing I really ended up loving about costume design: It’s all the things I really loved about acting, but without the stress of having to be on stage myself. I loved the rehearsal period; I loved the rehearsing even more than I loved the performing. So I think somehow accidentally I fell into the right place where I’m meant to be.

All production photos by Liz Lauren