Monday, September 15, 2014

Intimate Apparel—Artists Rep—SW Portland



The Fabric of Our Lives

This drama, by the award-winning playwright, Lynn Nottage, and directed by Michael Mendelson, is playing at their space, SW Alder St. & 16th Ave., through October 5th.  For more information, please go to their site at www.artistsrep.com

Ms. Nottage is an amazing storyteller (as is Mr. Mendelson, as an interpreter of stories).  About a month ago I had the privilege of reviewing a production of her Crumbs From the Table of Joy (see this review elsewhere on my blog).  She bases these tales on her family and they are indeed very illuminating as to the human condition, with all the rags and finery evident.  And, if we look very closely at her ruminations, it may be as if we are peering into a reflective glass and seeing ourselves.

“Clothes make the (hu)man” it is said.  And if you consider this story, the accouterments do play an important part of how these items define a person and station in life, and how others see them and/or how they may want to be seen.  And, being that the title suggests stripping down to the essentials, we just may view the soul of a being, as well.

Another thing that is common, in her factual fabrications, is dreams.  All the characters have dreams, albeit sometimes misguided or unrealistic.  But it is in the dreams that we become who we want to be.  They keep us forging forward against all odds.  Esther (Ayanna Berkshire), a seamstress, dreams of owning a beauty parlor; the landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Demene E. Hall), harkens back to a faded past and her man; Mrs. Van Buren, a rich lady (Sara Hennessy), desperately dreams of being free of a loveless marriage; Mr. Marks (Chris Harder), a tailor, has an impossible dream of marriage to a certain young lady; Mayme (Dedra D. Woods), a hooker, dreams of being cared for by a rich beau; and George (Vin Shambry), envisions a life where the world is at his feet, without him even having to lift a finger.

But dreams make us who we are.  The setting for these multiple dreamers is NYC around the early 1900’s.  Esther lives in a boarding house for unattached ladies.  She is a seamstress by trade and, on the surface, seems content to be a spinster.  But her landlady, a widower, insists she should get out into the real world and find her true love, like she had.  And poetic letters from George, a digger on the Panama Canal, seem to awaken this hope of a more fulfilling life.  Instead of her hopes being quilted in a single room, she allows herself to be caught up into the machinations of a broader world.

A rich, white lady, Mrs. Van Buren, a customer of hers, warns her of the dangers in trusting a marriage to solve things.  Her friend, Mayme, also warns her against trusting men, as her own life is bombard with those untrustworthy individuals.  Only a Jewish tailor, Mr. Marks, who befriends her, seems to understand the joys of the simple things, like the magical threads of special cloths, who have stories all their own.  But the outcome of all these interwoven tales is for you to discover.

The set (Jack O’Brien) and costumes (Sarah Gahagan) are amazing.  They actually transport you back to that era.  And the set is amazingly versatile for the half dozen settings for the play.  I must admit I covet that quilt over any of the fabrics shown.  (A side note:  My aunt and grandmother were both quilters and I still treasure one ragged example of theirs of this lovely art.)  And Mendelson has the perfect cast for this story.  As a director (and actor) he is always finding all the little nuances that are character-driven and so very human.  He is a true artist.

And your heart went out to Berkshire, as she journeyed from being a naïve girl to a sadder but wiser woman.  And she gently brought us along, glove in hand, for those discoveries of life.  I think we’ve all know the character that Hall plays, a person with one foot in the past, afraid to let go of it and more afraid of joining the modern age.  She is lovely to watch.  Hennessy’s character is a bit of an enigma.  You want to like her but one feels more pity for

Harder is a gentle soul and you instantly like him, although he seems ruled by tradition.  But he is capable of change and you watch this transformation with hope.  Nicely done.  Shambry’s character, on the surface, seems so callous at times and yet he is portrayed as a complex person, having nothing, but desiring the everything.  Good job.  And, for me, the one my heart went out to, was Woods’s persona.  A victim of circumstance who sincerely wishes to rise above her lot in life.  Her music and singing betrayed a longing for a better deal of the cards.  Woods has the makings of fine actress.


I would recommend this production but it does have adult situations so probably wouldn’t be good for children.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.