As afternoon light streams in through high windows, a young woman, luminous in an 18th century-style dress of gold silk, regards her reflection in a mirrored wall. Her small, corseted waist emphasizes the swell of breasts and hips; close-fitting sleeves call attention to her slender arms, outstretched like a dancer's above her billowy, floor-length skirt.
"That sleeve. Now, what's happening there? It needs to come together." A tall woman with tousled red bangs and alert blue eyes has been scrutinizing the dress from every angle. She reaches out and pinches the seam of one silk jacquard sleeve, tightening it at the young woman's wrist.
"Keep it taut here and then it can flare out," she says to a third woman, who takes the excess fabric and measures it.
A fourth woman scribbles in a notepad.
Satisfied with the sleeves, costume designer Catherine Zuber turns her attention to the drape of the long skirt, while the young woman, actress Devon Sorvari, waits patiently for Zuber to give the dress her final OK.
For weeks at Center Theatre Group's capacious costume shop in downtown L.A., Zuber has been supervising fittings for Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy "The School for Scandal," set to open Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum.
In this period romp about gossip-mongers, schemers, wastrels and dissatisfied spouses, 18 actors are clad, from the skin out, in authentic 18th century English garb: wigs, hats, gloves, shoes, spectacles and corsets. Strings, buttons and laces. No Velcro.
After the costumes are finished to Zuber's satisfaction -- when they fit and move as they should, when they look right under the stage lights -- this rarely idle designer will jet off to the East Coast for other productions already in the works.
At 54, Zuber is one of theater's most sought-after costume designers on both coasts. She's working on the Broadway premiere of the musical "Little Women" -- 19th century hoop skirts and more corsets -- at the Virginia Theatre in January as well as a revival of the 1972 rock musical of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" at Baltimore's Center Stage and "The Tempest" at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre in March.
"I love to work in all periods," Zuber says. "I love to examine what makes a period specific, I love looking at the way clothes were put together, what colors people gravitated toward, what was happening at the time that dictated certain choices.
"Costumes tap into art, history, sociology, literature, philosophy, psychology," she says. It's not about being historically accurate in every detail, "it's visually making sure the audience gets the right information about a character."
Born in England, Zuber moved to New York with her family when she was 9. Photography was her first career choice, but finding it "a lonely art form," she pursued costume design at the Yale School of Drama. "With the theater," she says, "the great thing is collaborating with the designers, the director, the actors and the playwright if it's a new play. When it's over, the wonderful thing is the memory."
English classical actor Brian Bedford, who is directing "Scandal" at the Taper and acting the role of harried husband Sir Peter Teazle, worked with Zuber last year in Noel Coward's 1939 comedy "Present Laughter" at Ontario's Stratford Festival. (The Toronto Star described Zuber's costumes as "vintage eye candy.")
Bedford points to Zuber's "impeccable theatrical intelligence. That's where it starts. Cathy designs clothes rather than costumes, and her clothes help me tremendously as an actor and a director."
Earlier this year, Doug Hughes tapped Zuber for the modern-day drama he is directing, John Patrick Shanley's new play, "Doubt," at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
"Cathy is brilliant, funny and tireless," Hughes says. "She has great daring and great range and an extraordinary visual sense that I trust in matters other than costumes." The two will work together again on MTC's adaptation of Carson McCullers' "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" and on the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Jon Robin Baitz's "The Paris Letter."
Irene Lewis, who will stage the Baltimore production of "Two Gentlemen of Verona," lauds Zuber's instinctive ability to make theatrical choices that serve the play.
"She's an invaluable collaborator, sometimes finding the style of the piece before the director does. I save all my hardest projects for her."
Theater's top prize, the Tony, has eluded Zuber, but she has been recognized with many Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations, including all three for last year's Broadway revival of "Dinner at Eight."
She holds the 1997 Obie Award for sustained achievement and took American Theatre Wing's Henry Hewes Design Award in 2003 for "Dinner at Eight" and for Caryl Churchill's "Far Away" and again this year for the Roundabout Theatre's production of Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel."
The L.A. Stage Alliance-sponsored Ovation Awards also honored Zuber for the Roundabout's recent remounting of the play at the Mark Taper Forum.
A costume designer's challenges are nothing if not eclectic. Sometimes it's the sheer numbers of costumes required. In 1999, Zuber designed some 2,000 corsets, 6,000 costumes total, for La Fete des Vignerons, the winegrowers festival in Switzerland.
The size of the theater is always a factor, as is the vantage point of the audience, determining hem lengths, hat and wig construction and how much small detail work there can be.
And then there's flying. And fluids.
The moody "Dracula, the Musical," now on Broadway after originating at the La Jolla Playhouse, has both. Although the show has been slammed hard by critics, Zuber's Victorian-era costumes have been called handsome, lush, stately and elegant.
"The clothes had to have poetry to them," she says, "but not tangle in the hardware of the flying. And on top of that there was a lot of blood and quick changes and people disappearing and clothes flying off. I had a great time."
Director Kate Whoriskey, who worked with Zuber for "Intimate Apparel's" premiere engagements at Center Stage and then at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, called on Zuber for her staging of Shakespeare Theatre's "Tempest." More flying, lots of water.
"Cathy accepts all challenges," Whoriskey says. "If she's available, she's the first person I go to."
'The School for Scandal'
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: Opens Thursday. Runs 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Some exceptions, call for information.
Ends: Jan. 23
Contact: (213) 628-2772, www.TaperAhmanson.com