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OVER THE FALLS // BY KATHRYN ROHE

Costume designer Kathryn Rohe reflects on the artistic splendor and personal pain of working on QUEEN OF THE MIST.

The most beautiful production I ever worked on was Transport Group’s 2011 world premiere of Michael John LaChiusa’s musical Queen of the Mist.  The story centered around real-life Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.  She accomplished this unmatched feat in 1901, on her 63rd birthday no less.  Although the musical ended with Annie achieving the glory she’d always dreamed of, her real-life story was anything but glorious.  Annie was ridiculed and dismissed, robbed of her famous barrel by her manager, relegated to sideshow acts rather than the academic lecture circuit of which she dreamed.  She died blind and penniless and was buried in a pauper’s cemetery in upstate New York.  Mary Testa, who played the role with world-class mastery, had read Annie’s biography and wept for three days straight.

My experience on the show had its own dark side.  A few weeks before we began working on it, I went to Jack and said—there’s something wrong with my Mom and we don’t know what’s going to happen.  We’d been worried about her for weeks, and it was becoming more apparent that there was something deeply wrong.  Jack and I concluded, in one of our most serious conversations, that we would cross whatever bridge this was when we came to it.

So, we started our journey with Annie—Jack, Michael John, Mary, the creative team and company.  Ultimately the show’s success would rest on many shoulders—Michael John with his gorgeous music and storytelling, made even more impressive by his ability to turn on a dime and still make magic—Mary with her heartbreaking performance and breathtaking singing—Andrew Samonsky, as Annie’s manager, with his ability to make us hate him and fall for him in the same breath—and the unforgettable ensemble with their collective chops: D.C. Anderson, Stanley Bahorek, Theresa McCarthy, Julia Murney, and Tally Sessions.  All of these contributions were made even more impressive by the imaginative work of director Jack Cummings and choreographer Scott Rink.

The design for the show was the icing on the cake.  Sandra Goldmark’s set, an alley configuration in the Gym at Judson Church, showed the contrast between the real and the ideal of Annie’s life.  One end of the alley was ratty and gray, with a sheer, ashy proscenium in tatters.  The other end was golden and glowing, its proscenium a decorated postcard arch framing the Falls.

All of these elements, accompanied by Lee Kennedy’s gorgeous lighting, combined to create one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever seen.  It occurred at the end of the story, also the end of Annie’s life.

The passage started gently.  Annie, after years of refusing to tell her story, now blind and penniless, finally recounts going over the Fall.  As she tells her tale, she simultaneously passes from life to death, and from forgotten to glorified, all while singing the beautiful words that capture the experience in “The Fall”:

Sky, slate gray blue
Clouds, migrating geese
Fog, chill in the air
Breathe now, Anna

Annie, now clad only in white blouse and black skirt, has begun this journey at the tattered end of the stage.  She is accompanied by the ensemble and Frank, who have also shed formal layers and shoes, as if they were playing in a river.  They gently reach for her and pull her along as she continues to sing…

Sun, glazed in mist
Sound, hovering bees
Clean, bright everywhere
Taste it, Anna

The music is soft and gentle, and Annie’s singing is delicate and measured.  The actors reach and guide her in slow motion.  The cool blue side lighting shifts and rises to indicate her progress…

Beautiful world, terrible world, good-bye…

Her journey, first a peaceful glide, soon builds in volume and speed.  Her thoughts intensify as she approaches the Fall.  Her guides step back as the lights turn hot orange…

bobbing, lilting, rolling, tilting
shift to the lift, dangerous!
must move to the right
and now I start praying WITH ALL OF MY MIGHT

She appeals to the Thunder God, fights off the Tiger, screams out to those she loves—Mother!  Father!  Jane!  Frank!  There’s a tremendous tumult—so bad the real-life Annie swore she’d never go through it again, then…

Peace…as she reaches the bottom of the Fall…alive.

look a light, a glow
and so I know, I live!

As she emerges from her barrel, and is reminded by Frank to breathe, she takes in her new world, the one in which she challenged death and won.

Delicious!

Annie’s guides lead and seat her on a throne at the golden end of the stage.  They then crown her and kneel at her feet, offering gifts.  The woman who struggled to rise above hardship through an act of unparalleled bravery is finally rewarded!  Delicious!

Every night, Mary would say that word with such pure feeling.  We’re fortunate that her response was captured forever on the original cast recording.  I still cannot imagine it, let alone hear it, without breaking into tears.

Because it wasn’t just Annie’s story that was heartbreaking.  Well into rehearsals, my ailing mother passed away, and for the first time in my career I had to abandon a show in the middle of production.  Jack and I “crossed that bridge” and I left town while my trusted colleagues, Maggie Dick and Shana Albery, both accomplished drapers, conducted Mary’s first muslin fitting without me, letting me sign off on photos of the results.  It was an experience like no other, being in two places at once.

Because of losing Mom, every night when Annie passed from life to death, her journey was a personal one.  Every time she cried out for her mother, I did for mine.  As some of you know, struggling with grief is much like Annie’s journey over the Falls—the pace quickens, the intensity builds, you shake and heave with all of your might, and then…

The storm breaks.  Peace returns.  Your soul breathes.  And you’re reminded that, although you’re left with only memories of your loved one, they are…

Delicious!

About the author:

Kathryn Rohe is a costume designer and educator.  She is a close collaborator with Transport Group Artistic Director Jack Cummings III; their collaboration began in 1993 at The University of Virginia as professor and student. She has designed eighteen Transport Group shows, and eight world premieres, including Terrence McNally’s And Away We Go (Pearl Theatre, 2013).  She was a proud member of the Theatrical Wardrobe Union for 14 years as a dresser on The Lion King, and is currently an Associate Professor at Ball State University.