Esther (l) played by Karen Robinson and Mayme (r) played by Abena Malika. Photo by K&K courtesy of HarderLee Studios.
October 9 to 27, 2012
Martha Cohen Theatre
Listen to my live review on CBC Eyeopener on Monday October 15th at 7:40 am
If I were asked to create a secondary title for Lynn Nottage’s play, Intimate Apparel, I would call it, ‘Wow it really sucked to be a woman in the early 1900’s’. Black or white, righteous or scandalous, rich or poor, the women in Intimate Apparel are all a deep degree of miserable, powerless, and abused in some form or another. But rather than rising above or striking out at their wretched circumstances, Nottage’s women turn on themselves and each other becoming shallow, weak and frankly pathetic.
This was most certainly not the play I expected to see by a Pulitzer-winning playwright who brags freely that her stories contain strong “warrior women”. If these are the most courageous female characters Nottage can come up with, I would hate to see her take on the frail side of womanhood.
Yet in spite of this tiresome and often times infuriating character development, I couldn’t help but enjoy the production thanks to some superb elements came very close to compensating for an otherwise disappointing whole.
Set in 1905, the play follows Esther (Karen Robinson), a 35-year-old single black woman living in a New York boarding house. To support herself, Esther sews intimate apparel for wildly diverse clients such as Mrs. Van Buren (Julie Orton) a wealthy, white, unhappily married and unloved socialite to Mayme (Abena Malika) a black singer who never realized her dreams of making it big and has turned to prostitution to make a living. Being successful at her job and living a modest lifestyle, Esther has managed to save enough money to open the beauty shop she dreams of owning. But more pressing on her mind is the fact that she is still single, a social status not kindly looked upon for a woman of her age. So when romantic letters start arriving from a Caribbean man named George Armstrong (Andre Sills) who is working in Panama, Esther is quickly smitten. Or as smitten as she can be with someone she has never met. This in contrast to the fact that she’s hiding her affection for a man that she actually knows but can never have, Mr. Marks (Graham Percy) , the Orthodox Jewish fabric salesman Esther buys her materials from. The pair has obvious chemistry and blossoming love for each other, but a more impossible relationship couldn’t exist given the era and their very different religious, ethnic and social backgrounds. Choosing the possible over the desired, Esther agrees to marry George, but is deeply disappointed by the man she finally meets. George, it turns out, is a man who not only shatters her illusions of a happy marriage, but also destroys her ambitions for the future.
Sound depressing? Well, yes sure it is. But that’s not my issue with the storyline. Many of the most lauded plays (and ones I hold dear) have at their centre a dark or gloomy premise. But unlike, say, Death of a Salesman which is depressing in order to address the falsity of the American Dream and the tragic reality of the dysfunctional family, Intimate Apparel says very little via its depression. Esther is weak and gets taken advantage of, Mrs. Van Buren simply accepts her husband’s abuse and Mayme sleeps with other women’s husbands without compunction because she herself is so broken. All this despair teaches us, is that these women live a victimized spiritless existence with no impetus to change things. While this may have been true for many women of the time, a play that simply snapshots an issue without adding discourse is, to my mind, thin and uninteresting storytelling.
Thankfully however, this can almost be forgotten once you factor in the uniformly outstanding cast, some very deft and creative direction and a set that beautifully allows all the numerous scenes to take place on one, unchanged stage.
Director Nigel Shawn Williams does a fantastic job of moving his cast swiftly and confidently from scene to scene with many details that feel exactly right. Most notable, is his direction of the final scene of Act 1, where Esther and George meet and marry in a matter of seconds with little to no dialogue. It was pure perfection in its elegance and simplicity and a packed a dramatic punch way above its weight class.
There is rarely a time when I am not a fan of Terry Gunvordahl’s imaginative and striking sets, and this is no exception, save for one element. Using only beds and dressing tables and a fantastic representation of a fabric sample shelf stacked high with colour explosion, Gunvordahl creates fully realized separate spaces for the cast to populate. Shame then about the incongruous modern sunbeam-shaped rod structure that umbrellas the stage. I kept waiting to see if it would become essential or participatory in the action, but was instead disappointed by the fact that it just stood there like a sore thumb you learn to ignore.
Thankfully we don’t wish ignore the fine, hardworking cast in this play. Robinson and Sills as Esther and George both do an impressive job of bringing more depth to their characters than the script actually allows. Kim Roberts as Mrs. Dickson, the boarding house landlady, also manages to give a decent performance despite having the most clichéd character to work with. But it was the remaining supporting roles that stole the show in this production. Orton’s Mrs. Van Buren was a lightning rod on stage commanding and rewarding our attention at every turn. Equal parts entitled and dejected, Orton delivers a character that audiences can guiltlessly hate and love at the same time. Malika’s turn as Mayme is a lesson in ease of intensity and the ability to own a role so fully that one sits in anticipation, waiting to see more of her. Finally, Percy as Mr. Marks is so heartbreakingly sad in his obvious but unexpressed feelings of love for Esther that you literally hold your breath every time he meets her. Percy’s outstanding projection of sweetness and repression was in fact the most interesting thing that happened on stage. If I had my way, Intimate Apparel would have focused far greater on this complicated relationship, giving audiences something more substantial to chew on and a discourse worth having.
For the girls – You will either spend the play thanking your lucky stars you don’t live in this era or being angered at the weakness and inertness of these female characters. Your enjoyment will depend on which side of the fence you land. MAYBE SEE IT
For the guys – Women made miserable by men and a male dominated society may not be high on your list of must sees. But the sweet futility of Esther and Mr. Mark’s relationship gives hope that not all men are dogs. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – The first act drags a bit, but the action is stronger as the play moves along. It’s a very well done production of a simplistic notion that in the end will leave you feeling like you got your money’s worth. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – Sometimes the joy at seeing an excellent production and outstanding cast trump the fact that the play itself isn’t all that strong. MAYBE SEE IT