Saturday, October 13, 2012

Review: (Calgary) Intimate Apparel

Not Just A Love Story
by Joe Vermeulen
Set in 1905 era New York City, Intimate Apparel is a story about growing up, betrayal and love. Esther (Karen Robinson) is a 35-year-old seamstress living in a boarding house for unmarried ladies. Known for making intimate apparel for ladies, she is highly sought after by the wealthy white upper class. After a wedding reception for one of her housemates, the landlady Mrs. Dickson (Kim Roberts) brings her a letter from a laborer on the Panama Canal. George (Andre Sills) has heard about Esther from a man who attends the same church as she does. He craves human contact from  a fine young lady. Encouragement from her friend Mayme (Abnea Malika) and client Mrs. Van Buren (Julie Orton) give her the courage to write him back. Meanwhile she is developing a very close and intimate bond with the Jewish cloth merchant Mr. Marks (Graham Percy). As her relationship with both George and Mr. Marks grow, she learns what real love is, and that she and others can change to let it grow.

For a play about clothing, costumes had to be excellent and certainly they were. 

Lynn Nottage’s award-winning script hooks you in from the first moment into an emotional roller coaster. While Esther’s betrayal in Act Two is a bit obvious and not at all surprising, her reaction to it is human and wonderful. Nottage seems to effortlessly bring the voices of her characters to life. Intimate Apparel is much more than a story about one woman. The boom town of New York, social concerns about prejudice towards African Americans and Jews, and the fall of the white socialite upper class are all central to the play and woven in seamlessly.
Karen Robinson’s portrayal of Esther was heartbreakingly real.  She commanded the stage with both comic timing and emotional density. The self-consciousness of someone who has never been sexual or in a relationship with anyone finally opening up was played to perfection.
Andre Sills as George was magnificent. First playing the hopeful loving man through his letters, followed by his decline as he becomes more abusive and bullying once he arrives in real life, Sills captures the intensity and depth of George. Even though we intellectually know that he will steal from Esther, his longing to better himself before he succumbs again to alcohol and gambling rang so true that the audience had to second guess their judgment of him.
The supporting cast was equally wonderful. Graham Percy’s Mr. Marks was loveable and affectionate. Percy made the audience hopeful that better things would soon be coming Esther’s way. The sexual tension between Mr. Marks and Esther was so thick you could almost see it, and the execution was brilliant. Julie Orton’s Mrs. Van Buren was a very convincing portrayal of a woman whose marriage and indeed life is falling apart. Relying on Esther as not only an employee but her only real friend, her despair and longing for companionship is just as powerful as George’s letters.
The scenery was exceptional. Wonderful use of forced perspective in the set brought four rooms to life on the stage and the transitions between them were seamless. The raked stage and use of different levels was an interesting and effective choice, which helped to differentiate further the rooms on the stage. Normally stages are raked at large houses where the audience can be seated further from the set. However, The Martha Cohen theatre is extremely intimate for a theatre of its size. None of the 400+ seats are further than 50 feet from the stage.  The lighting very much tied the production together, and as a piece of art and craft was superb. Prominent spotlights for stark and beautiful moments were combined with clear and distinctive lighting for each environment allowing the audience to know exactly where they are. For a play about clothing, costumes had to be excellent and they certainly  were. From a dour and almost boring Esther to the radically flamboyant Mrs. Van Buren, every piece was exceptional in both concept and execution.
I will freely confess to being a musical theatre person, but I thoroughly enjoyed Intimate Apparel. It is quite easily the best play I have seen in years, and was by far the most enjoyable night at the theatre I have had in a long time. This is the first show of the Alberta Theatre Projects season and if this show is any indicator it will be a fantastic one.

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