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BWW Review: INTIMATE APPAREL Shows a Colorful View of Social Stratification

Ensemble Theatre Company and Director Saundra McClain bring a colorful view of cultural stratification to the New Vic with Intimate Apparel, Lynn Nottage's play about converging layers of class, race, religion, and gender. Evident in both writing and staging, Intimate Apparel, which takes place in New York of 1905, is designed to show the intersections of these strata in a time when New York was the most densely populated city on Earth. Intimate Apparel highlights the plight of urbanites from all over the world vying for space.

Esther (Karole Foreman) is an African-American seamstress who specializes in fancy corsetry and lingerie. Esther is an entry point into dressing rooms on both ends of the cultural gradient: the demand for lingerie crosses social boundaries, and Esther's clientele includes a wealthy 5th-Avenue socialite on Stage Left and an African-American prostitute Stage Right. Esther is in the middle--her trade gives her to access to the other social strata, but not permanent passage. Up the stairs Stage Center is a small studio where Esther purchases fine, exotic materials from Mr. Marks (Jon Levenson), the Orthodox Jewish tailor and fabric merchant.

Esther is self-reliant, but lonely. She harbors a fascination for Mr. Marks, but his religion and her sense of decency prevent them from exploring their feelings. Instead, Esther begins communication with a canal digger in Panama, a Barbardian immigrant looking for companionship. Excited by the potential inferred from his letters, she agrees to marry him when he completes his stint as a ditch-digger and moves to New York City.

It's a nice effect, these points of intersection between race, gender, religion, and social class. The social commentary presented in Intimate Apparel is fairly innocuous, but occurs naturally within the context of the story, and provides an underlying sense of tension to the more prominent focus on Esther's romantic entanglements. Intimate Apparel certainly has some has some enjoyable moments and lively characters, including the tipsy ragtime prostitute, Mayme (Lailani Smith), and the charmingly awkward Mr. Marks, who's affection for Esther is authentic, but reluctant. Ensemble consistently delivers attractive, lavishly colorful sets, which allows for striking tableaus throughout play action. The New York skyline, the prostitute with the goddess-like mane of lion hair, and the emphasis on luxurious fabric and garmentry offered a sense of flair and vibrance--the subtext of eroticism played out through the tactile quality of the fabric offered a splash of coyness and style.

Overall, Intimate Apparel is light fare, a story of Esther's journey through romance in an atmosphere that highlights the melting pot culture of New York City at the turn of the last century. Director Saundra McClain shows how "each of the characters is longing to be touched, but separated by invisible walls of their own creation: cultural, social, and religious." Featuring Karole Foreman, Heather Ayers, Jon Levenson, and Heather Ayers, Peggy A. Blow, A.K. Murtada, and Leilani Smith.

Ensemble Theatre Company Presents:
Intimate Apparel
By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Saundra McClain

February 5-22

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From This Author Maggie Yates