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Making Rafiki Real 

by Michael Bowen & r & In her original conception of the Lion King stage version, Julie Taymor may have switched the gender of Rafiki -- transforming the shaman into a wise woman -- but she wanted to retain the character's resemblance to a baboon. Doing that goes beyond all of Rafiki's primary-color facial makeup -- it verges into the territory of Wardrobe Supervisor Gillian Kadish.


Rafiki "has a lowered waist, which makes her legs seem short," says Kadish. "Her feet are in shoes that are built up like platform shoes," only with the platforms rising above the feet. Another way to achieve Rafiki's distinctive body proportions, says Kadish, is to use simulated bamboo on the actress' hands. "The 'Rafiki fingers' are individually wrapped around her fingers in an individual fitting," Kadish says. And that's foam and latex on Rafiki's head, shaped "to resemble a tribalist hat."


Taymor innovated some distinctive costume tricks. For example, the men with grass on their heads -- you might call them "savanna boys" -- each "are wearing a sprung-steel hoop, so that it barely moves when they move, held to the body by thick rope over a cotton underbodice, with rope and synthetic yarn forming the skirt, which sways only slightly," says Kadish. "They're made so that each hoop is exactly eight inches off the ground."


And the "tricksters" who dance with Young Simba during "I Just Can't Wait To Be King"? "Those are based on shamanistic designs -- you know, for witch doctors. There's a ritualistic boar's head, an elephant mask, and so on."


And the lionesses' weeping over a certain someone's death? "Those are on two spools which are inside the mask, under the eyelashes," says Kadish. "The dancer pulls on them and it releases the ribbons."


During the show, the body stockings of the ballet dancers during "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" look iridescent under the lights. "They're wearing a flesh-color body suit dyed to match their flesh tone. It looks very ethereal and colorful. That's silk and spandex that's screen-printed by hand, then bunched up into what we call a 'crush' material and then appliqu & eacute;d by hand."


Upkeep of the costumes is a major project in itself. "We have three sets of everything, and it all rotates through the laundry," says Kadish. "We do 40 hours of washing every week -- it depends on the rules of the local union. We wash during intermission -- we wash throughout the entire show."


Kadish studied set design in college and once worked as a set decorator for BBC-TV. But after departmental cutbacks in 1991, she says, "I came to the States for six months and stayed for 14 years."


But it's not all glamour all the time for a wardrobe supervisor on the road. When we spoke, Kadish was making a run to REI later that day in search of "wick-away" underwear for the cheetah-dancer and the actors who play Zazu and Timon. In one city on the tour, she'd had to put up with a tiny downstairs workspace, "and the orchestra's only access to the pit was through our costume shop, so they were constantly climbing over us. And heavy baskets of wet clothes had to be carried upstairs," she groans.


Just the night before, during some horseplay backstage, one of the dancers had ripped his dashiki. "I was really, really annoyed," frowns Kadish, bent over sewing repairs. Then she smiles. "But it's nothing that a box of Godiva chocolates won't fix."

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