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THEATRE REVIEW: A disappointing ‘Intimate Apparel’ at Shakespeare & Co.

With more action in props rather than plot or character, notions of gender, class, sexuality, freedom, race, equality get tossed around with no dramatic effect.
Intimate Apparel

By Lynn Nottage

Directed by Daniela Varon

A director’s statement in a theater program shouldn’t articulate the playwright’s work better than what’s on stage, but sadly that’s the case with a static, tedious production of Pulitzer-Prize winning Lynn Nottage’s INTIMATE APPAREL at Shakespeare & Company. With an internalized conflict on one end and multiple, lofty themes on the other, in the absence of deft staging and an expert cast, there’s dead space in between. At the Bernstein Theatre on S&C’s Lenox campus INTIMATE APPAREL is nowheresville.

Nehassaiu deGannes in the lead role as Esther. Photo: Stratton McCrady
Nehassaiu deGannes in the lead role as Esther. Photo: Stratton McCrady

Too bad, because INTIMATE APPAREL should be a real heartbreaker and, in the right hands, a poignant testament to self-identity in the face of personal adversity and social norms. Protagonist Esther, escaping a dirt poor African American, North Carolina household as a young girl, has made a home for almost 20 years in a Manhattan boardinghouse (c. 1905) for women and supported herself as a highly skilled seamstress of fancy undergarments. Two of her clients, a prostitute and society matron, support Esther as she now approaches mid-life in her courtship by mail by a Caribbean laborer. He travels to marry her, after which Esther’s expectations of a “normal,” happy life turn south. Director Daniela Varon over-uses the bed of the female characters as a motif for the inner lives of women. That prop — the bed — is moved around, and made and unmade between scenes by players and two costumed stagehands, so many times (seems like two dozen), it grinds any chance of dramatic momentum to stop-and-go, fits and starts, for every scene. To distracting effect, the set’s backdrop — a row of narrow, rafter-to-floor panels of multi-patterned fabric — noisily slide (not without technical glitches) back and forth all too often. With more action in props rather than plot or character, Nottage’s notions of gender, class, sexuality, freedom, race, equality get tossed around with no dramatic effect.

Nehassaiu deGannes as Esther, and Tommy Schrider. Photo: Stratton McCrady
Nehassaiu deGannes as Esther, and Tommy Schrider. Photo: Stratton McCrady

Rather than engaging interest, this production allows one’s mind to wander to other stories that share plot and thematic elements, everything from RAGTIME to THE COLOR PURPLE , from CLOUD NINE to even NIGHTS OF CABIRIA. The charming Nehassaiu deGannes in the lead role as Esther is, like the rest of the cast, earnest enough, but she, like the others, seems focused on staying out of the way of the damn bed that gets pushed around the stage. Tommy Schrider as the Jewish dry-goods merchant to whom Esther is naturally attracted brings some spontaneity and vitality to the proceedings, but whatever drama Nottage wrote gets suffocated here.

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Intimate Apparel is playing in the Elayne Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. through August 13. For tickets and information, consult The Berkshire Edge calendar or Shakespeare & Company.

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