‘Intimate Apparel’ draws in on social issues
On Thursday night, the Laurie Theater was transformed into an unrecognizable quadrant of exquisite tapestries that hung from the rafters of the stage. Each of the quadrants was separated by thin thread that created the border of each “room.” This was the innovative set for Lynn Notage’s riveting drama “Intimate Apparel,” directed by Jacqui Parker.
“Intimate Apparel” takes place in 1905 in Lower Manhattan and tells the story of Esther (played brilliantly by Ashley Ertilien ’17) a 35-year-old African-American seamstress who lives in a women’s boarding house run by Mrs. Dickinson (played with sass and heart by Michelle Richardson ’16), who acts as the only sort of motherly figure in her life. Esther, unlike the other women in the boarding house, makes a living by sewing bustiers for the wide range of people who live in New York City. Her clients range from a lower-class prostitute (played by the charming and hilarious Keturah Walker ’18) to an upper class Southern “waspy” trophy wife (Gabi Nail ’18). Esther’s life gets turned upside down when she receives letters from a Caribbean laborer in Panama who wishes to correspond with her. The play depicts the series of events that occur from the time Esther receives these letters and how they cause her life and relationships with her friends to evolve. Ertilien played the role with innocence and tenacity. She grows throughout the play as she gains confidence in her role as a woman and a provider of something so private and personal. Ertilien kept the audience on its toes. From a single glance or sound, the audience was hooked and interested in her story.
During the first act, each scene revolves around Esther and those whom she is close to. The transitions between the scenes are dramatic readings of the letters by her correspondent, George Armstrong, played with intensity and passion by Shaquan McDowell ’18. McDowell’s accent was perfect as he accurately captured the specific elocution of a man from the Caribbean. McDowell’s passion transcended the boundaries of the stage as he gave his intense speeches from platforms on the sides of the stage, forming a connection with the audience.
The person who has the closest relationship with Esther is her fabric supplier, a pious Eastern- European Jew named Mr. Marks, played with humor and great accuracy by Brian Levi Dorfman ’16. Dorfman brought humor and charm to the role, as well as perfect Eastern-European diction. One challenge that Mr. Marks poses to Esther is that because of the strict Jewish law he follows, he cannot not touch women other than his wife or female relatives. Because he sells her fabric, the only physical connection they can have is through the fabric itself. Due to his lack of physical expression Esther and Mr. Marks have to create their relationship in other ways. He shows his devotion to herthrough beautiful fabrics that he curates just for her and extends his hospitality to her through sharing cups of tea.
Each performer brought something wonderful to his/her role. Walker brought charisma to her character of Mayme as she tried to charm Esther with her dreams of the future and her sexuality regarding men. Nail transformed into Southern belle Mrs. Van Buren. Though Mrs. Van Buren lives a life of leisure and wealth, she would rather spend time with her personal African American intimate apparel designer Esther, blurring class and race lines.
From a technical standpoint, the lighting (done by Harrison Furer ’17), sets (Cameron Anderson) and sound (Dewey Dellay) all came together to create a cohesive, powerful show. Parker did an incredible job interpreting the story in a way that was unique and engaging to all kinds of audience members, students and adults alike. The show is unpredictable and filled with twists that create an exciting theater-going experience.
“Intimate Apparel” addresses the themes of sexuality, relationships, class, race and gender roles, but most importantly, it emphasizes the idea of human interaction. The show depicts a world filled with connections. From a single glance between Mr. Marks and Esther to a physical interaction between George Armstrong and Esther — so much can be said in the silences as much as in the dialogue itself. “Intimate Apparel” speaks to the technological age — as in the twenty-first century, humanity relies too much on technology for interpersonal connections rather than the power of a letter or an in person glance.