Truly Beautiful INTIMATE APPAREL

PlayMakers Repertory Company has opened a deeply satisfying production in the Paul Green Theater. Beautifully directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Intimate Apparel offers the kind of intimate sharing of lives that is one of theatre’s most wondrous aspects. Lynn Nottage’s 2003 play was written nearly a century after it is set, and it is particular in its attention to the New York of 1905 that shapes its action and characters, but it is timeless in its delicate revelations of the souls of the women and men who people it. The basics of the story are not unusual, yet Nottage inserts at least three instances in which circumstances or behavior are such that they draw vocal response from the audience. During Sunday’s matinee (very well attended, and not just by old people) one moaning gasp in unison from the crowd nearly stopped the action on stage.

In other words, Intimate Apparel engages us at a deep emotional level. Certainly it concerns social questions, but it lets them radiate from the lived core. It doesn’t beat us over the head with its intellectual concepts; it never breaks the fourth wall. After all these years, I still find it miraculous that a play, with fragments, can let you look at a distant world complete–and tilt that distant world into a mirror of oneself and one’s own time.

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Rasool Jahan (left) as Esther, and Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Mrs. Dickson, in PlayMakers’ production of Intimate Apparel. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

Intimate Apparel centers on Esther, a black woman who made her way out of the South by picking berries and selling them along the trek from North Carolina. She lives in a boarding house, and from her little room has made a career as a fine seamstress, sewing fancy corsets and lingerie. She loves her work, but she’s 35 and lonesome, but also proud and particular and chaste. Esther is embodied by Rasool Jahan, who never fails to make the actress invisible–only the character is present on stage. Kathryn Hunter-Williams, who plays Esther’s landlady, the widowed Mrs. Dickson, has the same quality as an actress, which makes the scenes between the two women particularly fine.

One of Esther’s clients is an unhappily married rich white woman, Mrs. Van Buren, played by the lovely third year graduate student Allison Altman. Altman’s always a pleasure to watch, although she has not yet reached the point where she can subsume herself completely in the character. Nottage uses Mrs. Van Buren to highlight social and racial stratification, and to promote the plot, but she’s not unsympathetic to the woman–she’s somewhat irksome, but not two-dimensional.

To find the gorgeous fabrics and laces for her rich ladies’ underclothes, Esther frequents the shop of one Mr. Marks, a lonesome Romanian Jew who has long been awaiting the accomplishment of an arranged marriage to a woman still in Romania. Benjamin Curns, another third year student in the Professional Acting Program, gives the most fully realized performance of his time at Carolina as Mr. Marks. He and Esther share a deep love of fabric–and maybe they could share more, but it cannot be. The scenes between them pierced my heart.

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Esther (Rasool Jahan) and the cloth merchant Mr. Marks (Benjamin Curns) in PlayMakers’ Intimate Apparel. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

But it is handsome George who upends Esther’s life, with the help of her girlfriend, Mayme. Myles Bullock, another third year MFA student, is believable, touching and infuriating as George, the Barbadian laborer and pen pal admirer Esther marries. Poor George, thrust into the cauldron of Jim Crow New York, is not man enough to withstand the pressures and offenses and the destruction of his dreams, and even though one would like to get up and punch him, he is pitiable, and Bullock makes us feel George’s frustration to the degree that we can almost have sympathy for his profligacy.

Mayme, played with relish and a fine physicality by first year graduate student Shanelle Nicole Leonard, is the foil to the self-contained, working-for-the-future Esther. Mayme is a bawdy prostitute, living only in the now, the sensuous now. Yet she and Esther are good friends. Until. You know what will happen. But you don’t know what it will unleash in Esther. There are so few plots in life and in theatre, but so many twists.

Some plays don’t need much in the way of design, but this one is well-served by high production values. Bobbi Owen’s costumes are great–each perfect for its character. The scenic design by Junghyun Georgia Lee is rich and detailed, providing on the thrust stage several settings for the various locations so that the story is not interrupted by the moving of furniture. Her design is completed by the wonderful projections by Dominic Abbenante, and lighting designer Xavier Pierce has done a very interesting thing: the lighting is unusually soft, with fewer lumens overall, and this gives us the feeling of entering one of the old photographs used so effectively in the projections.

This fine production continues at PlayMakers through Feb. 12.

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Esther (Rasool Jahan) and George (Myles Bullock) on their wedding day, in PlayMakers’ production of Intimate Apparel. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

 

 

Clear as Glass (Philip, 80 proof)

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Philip Glass. The protean composer will be at UNC-Chapel Hill for several days during the Glass at 80 festival organized by CPA. Photo: Raymond Meier.

 

Before I tell you about the two wonderful performances I saw this past weekend, I want to make sure you know about the 10-day series of performances honoring composer Philip Glass on his 80th birthday. Beginning Wednesday, February 1, and extending to February 10, this remarkably varied series and its accompanying events and exhibitions could only be brought to you by a major university. While this festival will not be as extensive as the stupendous year focused on The Rite of Spring, it has the very great merit of engaging with the work of a magnificent composer who is still with us–its an aural retrospective for a living artist, and a chance to hear not only his music, but what he himself has to say about it.

Very few arts aficionados will be unaware of Glass’s work in a range of forms: Movies, check. Operas, check. String quartets, check. Orchestral music, check. Dance, check. Weird experimental stuff, check. Carolina Performing Arts will be offering some of each during Glass at 80. I was unable to choose among them, so I expect to be Glassy-eyed by Feb.11.

If I did have to choose just one, it would be the re-creation of Dance, made in 1979 by choreographer Lucinda Childs, visual artist Sol LeWitt, and Philip Glass. Each artist worked in a modular manner, making complexity out of simple, repeating marks, motions and structures. Before live motion-capture video was a thing, LeWitt made a black and white film of Childs’ dancers to project at huge scale behind the live dancers in motion among his painted lines on the stage floor–motion synchronous with Glass’ music (rather than asynchronous in the manner of Cunningham and Cage). The Lucinda Childs Dance Company will perform this historically important work in Memorial Hall Feb. 7. This work may slay any ideas you may have about minimalist art lacking humanism.

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A moment from Dance, by Lucinda Childs, Sol LeWitt and Philip Glass. Photo: Sally Cohn.

 

But then again, it might be Words and Music in Two Parts, the first major collaboration between Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. Laurie Anderson! and Philip Glass! with the Philip Glass Ensemble! Only the artists know what will happen in this–it will be brand new on Feb. 10. Prepare to be tranced and entranced by two of the most brilliant experimental artists of our time.

But there is also an evening featuring the complete set of piano etudes by Glass–performed by 10 superb pianists, including Glass himself. This is a form that gets the listener right to the heart of the composer. UNC’s Clara Yang will also perform. This one will take place in the newly renovated and acoustically pleasing Moeser Auditorium in Hill Hall.

Since I didn’t choose, I’ll be plunging into this aural indulgence with an all-Glass program by the Bruckner Orchester Linz on Feb. 1. The program will include a tone poem, Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1, and his Symphony No. 11–obviously, he has survived the 9th symphony curse. Two days later comes the Heroes Tribute: the UNC Symphony will play Glass’ Symphony No. 4, “Heroes,” inspired by the music of Brian Eno and David Bowie; then a roster of Merge Records artists will play their versions of pieces from David Bowie’s Heroes album. This is how art rolls on into the future, and pulls the past with it.

Another example of that rolling creative circle will be the performance of Glass’s Dracula by the Kronos Quartet as the great silent film with Bela Lugosi is screened behind them in Memorial Hall on Feb. 9. Glass was commissioned to write the score when the Tod Browning film (1931) was restored in 1998. It will be particularly interesting to see and hear this after seeing Dance two days previously.

And if that’s not enough, check out the various talks, including one by Glass and another by Glass and Laurie Anderson, and the related exhibition at the Ackland Art Museum, which features, among other works, two portraits of Glass by his friend Chuck Close. All the details at glassat80.org.

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Dracula, with the Kronos Quartet. Photo: Didier Dorval.

Bait and Switch

The advance materials for a performance that will repeat today at 2 and 7 at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art show Thomas F. DeFrantz dancing. True, the photo shows him dancing in the Ninth Street Dance studio, but one is led to think that DeFrantz himself will dance in the performance at the Nasher.

No.

SLIPPAGE: reVERSE-gesture-reVIEWed supposedly explores “the provocation of Kara Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)” and maybe that is what the three dancers did, but most of the audience saw only a small fraction of the movement and the projections. DeFrantz was there, speaking cryptically in a tone suited to first year students in a classroom, and gliding about in his groovy multi-hued seersucker suit (yes, Virginia, it IS still January) and his white buck (heavy sartorial symbolism) shoes, but he did not dance.

DeFrantz is Professor and Chair of African and African American studies at Duke, and I had expected a sophisticated work, and was hoping for something as brilliant as Colson Whitehead’s recent book, The Underground Railroad. The use of technology was sophisticated (DeFrantz came to Duke from MIT), or maybe just cool, but neither the choreography nor the visuals were. What one could see of them.

I can think of three reasons for this performance to have been set up in an empty gallery, rather than in the museum auditorium. 1) They didn’t expect a crowd–didn’t think more than 10 or 15 people would show up–and that many would have been able to see. 2) The real purpose of the live performance was to create a video, so the audience didn’t really matter. 3) DeFrantz may have been trying to make a point about how difficult it is to see the whole picture and how few can actually do it. That is a point that one always must keep in mind.

But to lure people to a performance, people who are curious, and willing to look for what they have not noticed before–and not let them see it, strikes me as sadistic and self-defeating.

If you, like me, are really interested in “the place of Black women’s presence in the landscape of the Civil War,” you would do better to go back to Margaret Walker’s Jubilee. This 1966 book turned my head around when I was 15. The Durham County Library has four copies.

 

 

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