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Evolve Theatre Company Begins with a Winner

Evolve Theatre Company Begins with a Winner

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A new theatre company, Evolve, has just opened with a fascinating play by Pulitzer Prize-winner, Lynn Nottage.  Intimate Apparel, which won actress Viola Davis an “Obie” for her performance when it opened Off-Broadway in 2004, is a story inspired by Nottage’s own great-grandmother who married a man who had worked on the Panama Canal.

In the play Esther Mills (played by Jeanné Wynne Herring) is a 35 year old spinster, living in NYC in 1905, making a living by sewing corsets and other intimate garments for women, both high class and low.  High class women are represented by Mrs. Van Buren (Lurana Donnels O’Malley), like Esther a “migrant” from the South; low class women by prostitute Mayme (Allison Francis Paynter).  Mrs. Dickson (Shervelle Bergholz) has been Esther’s landlady for 17 years.  Mr. Marks (T.C. Smith) is the Romanian Orthodox Jew who owns the fabric store that Esther patronizes.

These various relationships play out in ways that illustrate the tensions of employment vs. friendship between whites and blacks, differing survival tactics of middle class and lower class black women,  a range of mostly unhappy marriages, and the impossibility of any expression of physical intimacy between a Hasidic Jew and any woman not his wife, despite a meeting of their minds.

OK, but those are the subsidiary plots.  The main story is that of Esther and George Armstrong (Curtis Duncan), a laborer on the Panama Canal who begins a letter-writing campaign to win Esther’s heart.  This is complicated by the fact that Esther has never learned to read or write, so she must employ her friends to carry out her part of the epistolary romance.  Eventually George proposes by mail and Esther accepts.  At the end of Act I George has just arrived in New York and we see George and Esther in their wedding finery, posed for one of those deadly serious wedding photos.  What happens next is the subject of Act II.  

The play is staged in a square space with audience on three sides.  The four sides of the square show Esther’s sewing machine, the desk belonging to Mrs. Van Buren, the counter on which Mr. Marks displays his fabrics, and the piano and velvet sofa in Mayme’s room although characters can move throughout the area and use one another’s space.  When George first appears he seems far off, way off the playing space as he dictates his first letter.  With each exchange of letters, though, he and Esther get physically closer and closer until with the proposal letter they seem to actually brush by each other but of course without seeing the other—a nice directorial touch.

Herring is simply terrific as Esther.  By turns stubborn, shy, yearning, and commanding, she shows us the heart of this woman and we yearn and commiserate with her all the way.  Duncan, as George, is totally believable as the smitten suitor, a Christian whose values seem to match Esther’s.  In the second act, when George reveals a new and different personality, Duncan has the power to unleash George’s explosive need to take charge of his own destiny. Bergholz was a bit hard to understand right at the start but after the first night jitters passed she told her story in a warm and clear way (and served as a relaxed and welcoming emcee after the show).

O’Malley has a difficult transition to make as Mrs. Van Buren, but accomplishes it all with aplomb.  O’Malley is Evolve’s Dramaturg and has written a helpful introductory note in the program on the play’s social background. Smith as Mr. Marks handled his Eastern European accent well; I’m not entirely convinced of his desire for Esther, but from my seat I couldn’t always see his face. Paynter is a hoot and a half as Mayme, a prostitute (and singer) with a heart of gold.

Director Troy Apostol has drawn strong and brave performances from his cast, who have put body as well as soul into their characters.  This means that the play comes to life in a way you could never understand from just reading it.  [It reminds me of a one-hour, four-actor condensation of “Romeo and Juliet” Troy directed for Hawaii Shakespeare Company’s Shakespeare in the Schools program a few years ago (confession: I played the Nurse) in which every emotion and sexual innuendo hidden in Shakespeare’s words was brought out by Troy in such a way as to engage students who might have otherwise found the play dry as dust.  Some of the teachers were apparently surprised and shocked, but students really got it.]  One small complaint: when George lashed out in Act II, he was often facing upstage and that plus his strong Caribbean accent meant Nottage’s words came across intermittently.  Otherwise, Apostol handled the 3/4 stage very cleverly.

Audience members should be prepared for some partial nudity, appropriate since, after all, Esther is fitting corsets on the ladies.  Speaking of the audience, on opening night there were some teenagers in the front row whose behavior was rude and distracting to other audience members.  Fortunately the actors’ commitment to their roles meant they carried on as if this weren’t happening.  

Intimate Apparel is playing at Ong King Arts Center at 1154 Fort Street Mall.  It continues only through next weekend.  OKAC is a small theatre, so please hurry and get your tickets so as not to miss this inaugural production of Evolve Theatre Company.  Evolve’s mission is to tell the stories of “the underrepresented and the historically disenfranchised.”  Intimate Apparel gives you the chance to think about how women in 1905 could survive without the support of a husband, what limited opportunities were available for black men, and how immigrants could fit in with a culture at odds with their own—some issues still urgent more than a century later.

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