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Feeling Crafty

The current show at the Walnut Street Theatre — based on Agatha Christie’s classic thriller The Mousetrap — is touted as the world’s longest-running play.

This year marks its 60th anniversary.

To celebrate that milestone, Mousetrap Productions has licensed 60 worldwide productions of this record-breaking mystery, and the Walnut Street Theatre is among them.

Previews began Tuesday, Jan. 17, and the official opening is Jan. 25.

Mary Folino, of Fishtown, will be in the audience for all the previews — but not as a typical audience member. Instead, she’ll focus almost entirely on the costumes worn by the actors, and she’ll be taking notes as she watches.

As costume designer for the show, she’s responsible for every detail of all the costumes — from shoes to clothes to wigs.

Her interest in this specialty began when she attended the University of Delaware, majoring in theater production. While there, she worked in the costume shop of the graduate theater department. Although in earlier years the Pennsauken, N.J., native had enjoyed acting, she found her niche behind the scenes, working on costumes.

“Costumes give the audience information about the characters before they even speak,” she says. “And they help define their personalities, just as anyone’s clothes do.”

Right after college, in 2001, she landed a job as an apprentice in the Walnut Street Theatre costume shop.

“I was thrilled,” she recalls. “This is one of the largest theaters in the city, and I knew I could work on some big productions.”

Soon she was promoted to assistant costume shop manager, a position she still holds.

During her 10 years with the Walnut, she worked on more than 100 productions, either as an assistant or as the chief costume designer, as she is with The Mousetrap.

Previews are her last chance to do any fine-tuning of the 13 costumes she designed from start to finish.

Her role began when she read the script for The Mousetrap. The play is set in England during the winter of 1952.

“I was excited that it was a period piece because period costumes are my favorites,” said Folino.

Then came consultations with director Malcolm Black and the designers for the set, sound and lighting, since all their ideas have to mesh.

Next, he drew sketches for the costumes as she envisioned them. They included designs for a suit, a heavy wool dress, a tweed pantsuit — all very subdued.

“They wouldn’t be fashionable today,” says Folino. “They’re supposed to reflect these very proper English people.”

The next step was a hopping spree as she went looking for fabrics and accessories on South Fourth Street in South Philly, known as ldquo;Fabric Row” because of its many fabric shops.

She found much of what she needed for these ’50s-era clothes, including wool tweeds and period-looking plaids.

She also shopped on eBay.

“I found a number of vintage pieces,” she said.

She was especially pleased to find two wool coats that actually originated in London in 1952. She bought eight pairs of shoes online. There were also scarves and gloves to assemble, but they were easy to find.

Wigs are also considered part of the overall costume, and the three female actresses wear them onstage.

“It’s for convenience,” explained Folino. “That way they have the same hairstyle every night and they don’t have to spend time fixing their hair. They just put on the wig and they’re ready.”

The costumes for the male actors were especially challenging.

“All five characters are mysterious in some way,” said Folino. For instance, one of them had to look somewhat flamboyant. “But there’s a fine line between keeping him appropriate to the period and letting the audience know he’s flamboyant.”

Then there’s the inspector who enters in Act II to try to solve the mystery. Because it’s snowing outside, he actually comes in on skis and wears a parka.

Folino is a purist about keeping faithful to the time period, so she first did research and found a reproduction of a parka for that era. Then, on the Internet, she found a brand new parka that was an accurate reproduction.

One challenge for all the vintage attire was finding garments or fabrics that would hold up well for the run of the show.

“There were some beautiful garments out there, but they were slightly worn and wouldn’t hold up for eight weeks,” says Folino.

Instead, he searched for especially sturdy fabrics or vintage pieces that were in mint condition. With all the materials purchased, Folino next set to work supervising the “building” of the costumes, as it’s called. This means creating the entire costume, many of which were made from scratch.

The process takes place in the fourth-floor costume shop of the Walnut Street Theatre. Two drapers and two stitchers set to work building the costumes, with Folino overseeing.

Previews continue until the Jan. 25 opening night. Folino will be in the audience all week, taking notes so that after each performance she can make whatever changes are needed.

On opening night, he’ll again be in the audience.

“That’s when I can sit back and just enjoy the show,” she says. ••

If you go…

The Mousetrap, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 815 Walnut St., opens Wednesday, Jan. 25, after previews this week. Shows continue through March 4. Tickets range from $80 to $10, available by calling 215–574–3550, ordering online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or through Ticketmaster.

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