Wrap Yourself in This Apparel

photo by david hou
carly street as mrs. van buren and raven dauda as esther

American playwright Lynn Nottage’s play Intimate Apparel (2003), which is being remounted by Obsidian Theatre in conjunction with the Canadian Stage Company, playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre until March 6th, 2010, is a richly sensual play that centers of the power of touch within a repressive (and complex) hierarchy of power and privilege based on race, gender and religion in New York at the turn of the 20th Century.

The story centers on Esther, a thirty-five year old African American self-described spinster who is becoming increasingly desperate to leave the boarding house she has lived in alone for eighteen years and to find a man who will love and marry her so that her life may be fulfilled. Esther is not without dreams, ambition or talent, on the contrary, she is a scrupulous seamstress who creates lovely corsets and bloomers for wealthy clients, who has amassed several hundred dollars, (sewn into the stitching of her crazy quilt) in hopes of someday opening her own beauty parlour. Yet, in 1905 being a self-sufficient working woman was considered only a transitional state and regardless of a woman’s own accomplishment, true success could only be found in the arms of a man.
Nottage gives Esther two opportunities to channel her passion and longing for intimacy and touch. The first is in her written correspondence with George, a Barbadian labourer working on digging the Panama Canal. Here, distance thwarts George and Esther’s ability to touch one another, as they have only words as a means to forge a connection with one another and the possibility of slipping into a daydream fantasy world threatens the validity of their relationship. Esther’s zeal for fabrics is fostered by the Jewish merchant Mr. Marks, and therefore, much of the caressing that is done in this play is in Mr. Marks and Esther’s jubilation in their sensuous touch of satin, silk and wool.
The performances in this play are as lush, rich, textured and stunning as Tamara Marie Kucheran’s sets and costumes. Lisa Berry plays a feisty prostitute, Mayme, who spends her time playing ragtime tunes on the piano in the saloon. Her chutzpah blazes in stark contrast to Esther’s severe modesty and sensibleness, yet their friendship is rooted in a deep and complex, yet surprisingly pure mutual respect. Carly Street’s portrayal of the wealthy Mrs. Van Buren and her equally complex friendship with Esther is an effective mirror to Berry’s Mayme. In both instances, Esther’s friendships become complicated by the disparity in class and power between her and both these women. Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren are both immensely delicate creatures, and Carly Street gives an especially tragic performance as her character’s fragility and yearning for simple intimacy with Esther turns quickly into an ugly, hurtful misuse of power.
Alex Poch-Goldin is truly inspired as Mr. Marks and gives a beautiful, simple, poignant performance opulent in subtly. Kevin Hanchard is brilliant in his ability to initially infuse the enticing, suave George with an air of sincerity and then, as the play progresses, quickly drain all the value from his words leaving him as the charming shell of a hollow man. It is out of Raven Dauda’s formidable characterization of Esther that all the other characters in this play spring to life. Dauda gives a very carefully moderated performance, allowing Esther to experience joy, excitement, curiosity, and even love, only in careful spurts before reining herself back into ordinary drudgery. It is heartbreaking to watch Dauda’s Esther clamber to keep Hanchard’s George within her grasp, and the audience can feel the intensity of her life being torn to shreds in the awful sound of a ripping quilt.
Director Philip Akin expertly fills the expansive Bluma Appel stage, while still thrusting the characters and their story into the audience’s lap so that the play’s integral intimacy does not become sucked into the a vastness of space. In his Director’s Note, Akin writes that in many ways, Intimate Apparel tells a very simple story about six people living their lives. Nottage weaves all six together through their desires and longings to be touched and the restrictions of society, custom, religion, gender, race and class that have them all ensnared. With Nottage’s captivating writing style and six incredible performances, the Obsidian/ Canadian Stage Company production is undeniably one that touches the heart.
Intimate Apparel runs until March 6, 2010 at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street East). For tickets or more information please visit www.canstage.com or call 416.368.3110.

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