Today is our uniform fitting, and we’re all feeling giddy. For many of us, the uniforms are the main reason we’re here. Each regiment has its own team of dressers. It gives me no end of pleasure to announce to friends, “I can’t possibly join you on Wednesday—drat it all!—I’ve got my final fitting for War and Peace. My dresser—damn her eyes—will be quite vexed if I’m late.” I find myself trying to work 19th-century idioms and attitudes like this into my everyday speech. After the first meticulous fitting, held at the audition, I expect European high-end tailoring from the Met, but the pants are sausage-snug and my jacket is a bit loose. It’s also missing some buttons. I point this out to my dresser, and she dutifully takes notes on a tag she attaches to the jacket, promising that it’ll all be fixed by opening night. But when William complains that his pants are droopy the same dresser says, “Hel-lo! These uniforms were made in Russia! You’ll be lucky if your pants don’t fall apart onstage.” Service is variable, but this dresser proves prophetic about the dissolving pants.
My freakishly enormous thighs make the tight white pants too tight for the goose-stepping parade march. I try a few tentative goose steps to test them, fearing a zippering tear at every step. At the next fitting station, a cheerful dresser measures my gigantic head. It’s nearly the same size as my waist. After she wraps the measuring tape around my head, she announces, “Oh, good! A really big head! I have lots of big hats.” She finds a Nutcracker hat the size of a wastepaper basket and places it on my head. Improbably, it’s too big; it slides right over my ears. I ask for a smaller one, and she gives me a look that says “Do you know how big your head is?” Of course I know how big my head is, because my sister has been telling me ever since I was 8. My sister also told me to “work on it,” though how I was supposed to go about that was unclear. I’m afraid the dresser will give me the same advice, but instead she says they can “foam” it—the hat, that is. They stick pieces of foam on the hat’s interior to make it fit.
When we return Friday for the first dress rehearsal, there are local and even international press photographers swarming the stage and rehearsal room. The photos will appear in next week’s magazines and newspapers. Film crews from Germany and Russia and reporters from the Daily News and New York magazine interview soldiers and try to snap photos that will catch us doing something anachronistic in our uniforms, like talking on a cell phone. They are even lurking in the bathroom, hoping to catch some bathroom-stall awkwardness.
Called into formation, we stand in a row for inspection by the costume people before we go onstage. One dresser is a young, sassy, fashionably dressed African-American woman. She’s wearing a tweed newsboy cap, canted to the left. She looks at the guy next to me, whose hat is also askew, and says, “Hey, you’re rockin’ that hat like I’m rockin’ mine! You can’t have it at that angle.” She fixes it.
Each stovepipe hat has a stiff black pompon, a big plume thingy right in the center that looks like nothing so much as a foot-long fuzzy exclamation point. They come in a variety of sizes. I’ll admit here that mine is not the tallest. When the sassy dresser gets to me, she says, “Wow. Your thingy is small. No offense. But it’s, like, the smallest one here.” She’s right. I’m the shortest soldier, and my tiny pompon makes me look even shorter. Predictably, they become a focal point for innuendo. William, who is the master of insinuation and could make a double-entendre about a ham sandwich, addresses the subtext directly, saying, “Oh, don’t worry. My ex-boyfriend was short, too, and, boy, when he took off his pants … Whoa! He was like a three-legged stool.” Thank you, William.
The photographers’ instincts are right about the bathrooms. The uniform pants button up the sides, so once you’re in them, with all your cross-strapping accoutrements, sword hanging at your side, going to the bathroom is an awkward dance. You feel the full force of the 19th century and its denial of bodily functions. The enormous hat with braided white dangling curtain cords hanging from either side makes me feel like a piece of overdone Louis XIV furniture.
As I listen to our final orders, I keep reaching up and absently pulling on my cords, stroking them, but when I realize I look like Cindy Brady petting her flaxen braids I stop. I make a mental note not to do it onstage, or in front of Sasha.
“Take care of any personal or physical needs before you are onstage,” Sasha tells us. “Because you cannot itch your nose on the stage, or you vill be sent to that dark, vindowless place, deep in the ground, vhere it is wery cold and you vill be alone …” I think he’s talking about hell, or my boyhood home in Newark, but then we realize he means a gulag or the stockade. Charmingly, he often embarks on extended metaphors or complicated similes like this that he can’t find his way out of. Now he concludes with, “So make sure you scratch and adjust before you step on the stage.”
With opening night less than a week away, I will have to master my absent-minded grooming of my curtain tassels.
Still thinking of Sasha’s admonitions, we ready ourselves for our first time onstage, putting on our uniforms with purpose: tight pants, black dickeys to cover our shirts, jackets, then the crossing bandoliers. It’s our first time in front of an audience, even if it is only a dress-rehearsal audience, and we are purposeful. In those darkened wings, with the lighted stage just ahead of us, we are filled with solemnity for what we’re about to do. Except for William, that is, who’s spilled some water on his dickey and is now showing it to me and the dressers with a naughty expression on his face. “Uh-oh, my dickey’s wet,” he says. He shows me his dickey. “Look at my dickey. I don’t know how I got my dickey wet! Hope I don’t get in trouble.”
Our cue music starts. We straighten up and begin to march in place for our entrance. Whether we’re ready or not, the audience is waiting.