Saturday, March 31, 2012

Review: (Montreal) Intimate Apparel

Lucinda Davis and Quincy Armorer (photo credit:

The Unchangeable Past
Centaur has a dynamite cast for the Apparel
by Sarah Deshaies
Who hasn't tried to envision what their forebears' past might have been?

Playwright Lynn Nottage concocted Intimate Apparel out of a desire to know more about her great-grandmother, Ethel Boyce, according to dramaturge Caitlin Murphy in the informative playbill. Ethel was a religious woman, a Black immigrant who made her way from Barbados to Ellis Island in 1911, at a time when many were converging on New York City to create new lives for themselves.

Esther is also 35 and unmarried - effectively a spinster.

On our stage, Esther (Lucinda Davis) is an earnest woman from the South who has sewn herself a new life in New York City. She is a hard-working seamstress who stashes away cash in her quilt, dreaming of owning a beauty parlour of her own someday. Meanwhile, she makes mouth-watering lingerie for the highest and lowest parts of society.

Esther is also 35 and unmarried - effectively a spinster.

But soon letters arrive from Panama. A labourer on the canal from the islands (and a friend of a friend) starts to write his way into Esther's lonely heart. I couldn't help my mind drifting away to imagine this story as a Sex and the City of the oppressed Black woman's New York at the turn-of-the-century. Because as Esther starts to fall for her penpal George (Quincy Armorer), her landlady (Ranee Lee) waxes nostalgic about her own coupling, and her clients, including a "Georgia peach" in the Big Apple and a soulful whore, also confide their own romantic conundrums to Esther. 

But it's turn-of-the-century New York in the 1900s, not the 2000s, and so our story is fraught with discrimination, dead ends and forbidden love.

The set is an interesting concept: Esther’s world is hemmed in by wooden slats that make up the backdrop, floor and the big ceiling, which arcs wide over the stage. Just what kind of feeling this giant wooden stage is supposed to impart hasn’t hit me yet, but there’s no doubt that it’s impressive. 

But Intimate Apparel, with its script's humorous touches, Davis’ likeable character and stellar performances from the supporting cast, will be a hit.

One other element of Intimate Apparel nagged at me: the ever-moving bed. Davis is present in most of the scenes. We cycle through her home, her clients’ boudoirs, the shop where she picks up her fabrics. Each time we enter a new venue, two characters shift the bed, which sits in the centre of the stage. People around me started grumbling at maybe the 10th re-arranging of the furniture. As each character tends to remain in their sphere, telling us where we are, the shifting of the bed doesn’t really denote anything. Rather, it grates on our nerves.

But Intimate Apparel, with its script's humorous touches, Davis’s likeable character and stellar performances from the supporting cast, will be a hit. (I couldn’t wait to see Armorer, Tamara Brown, Patricia Summersett and Eloi ArchamBaudoin onstage again after they left.)

Director Micheline Chevrier has a story with heart and determination on her hands, though the drama really only starts to mix after intermission. 

Of note - the period-appropriate dance number before we break from Act 1 is a lovely touch and worth the entry alone.

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