Elle: Rox went to see our chiropractor in an all-girl roller derby so Lightsey (dancer, dance critic, poet) agreed to come with me to see "Intimate Apparel" at the Guthrie Theater. Hey, Lights, was that introduction of you okay?
Lightsey: Why are you asking me that? I heard you tell Melodie Bahan [the Guthrie's Director of Communications] that since I was along the review would be slightly...elevated. That means no idle chit-chat.
Elle: Um. So I'll get straight to the point: Go see the play.
Lightsey: That's it?
Elle: No, there's more. This was one of my favorite of the Guthrie's performances, because it touched me. In a couple of places I found myself getting teary-eyed. Considering all the plays I've seen, none of which have inspired tears, I asked myself why theater inspires laughter but not tears. What was different about this play? My conclusion is this: TV or movies allow us safe distance. Because the actors are not in the room with us and probably because of the visuals (special effects or a much more elaborate set than theater allows), we allow ourselves to be drawn into the story on screen or to suspend disbelief.
Lightsey: What about books?
Elle: Oh, I get even more emotional over books because there are no concrete visuals, I have my own pictures in my head. But plays are different. I usually don't get drawn in like I did with Intimate Apparel. I think what was different about this play was the story. I mean, it told a really interesting story, the characters were well developed, and the acting was great--I especially loved Sharon Washington (Esther) and Ron Menzel (Mr. Marks). Washington had the harder job since she didn't get to "ham it up" (Why can't I think of a kosher reference?) like Menzel, who despite playing the stereotypical Jewish merchant (fabric), still managed some touching moments in the scenes with Washington.
It was a nice period piece. You couldn't have pulled off the restraint that a black seamstress and a Jewish merchant had to show with each other back then today's day and age. Well, that's not entirely true. An Orthodox Jewish man would have behaved in much the same way even today. A relationship with anyone other than an Orthodox Jewish woman would be out of the question. But at least today, should a situation like that occur, an Orthodox Jew would at least have the option of becoming a Conservative or Reform Jew. But what I'm getting at is this: Society today is "anything goes and I want it now, now, now" and while I'm not advocating a return to Victorian mores, repression, bigotry, etc. watching a play in which I was engaged with characters who felt "real" to me (none of that "look at me I'm acting") and were facing problems that weren't going to be easily solved and resolved was refreshing. That was a really long sentence. Ok Lights. I've hogged the stage long enough (damn, another non kosher reference)--your turn.
Lightsey: Yes, I agree about the acting. Often I feel very put off by theater in which the acting becomes so prominent that you notice it; here the acting was quiet and I was able to get into the story, to ride the narrative as I would the narrative of a movie or TV show (a very apt comparison, Elle). And I agree that the story itself is engaging--the beginning full of hope and romance, the middle full of dread, and the end of revelation and peace. I was struck by how well-crafted this production is, from the perfect arc of the drama to the smooth acting to the neat pleats at the back of Esther's dress. The workmanship is impressive. But sometimes I like a ragged edge.
Elle: You wanted a ragged edge here? Why? Where?
Lightsey: No, actually, I don't want this play to be anything other than it is. Aside from a few missteps (the proto-lesbian revelation of Mrs. Van Buren [Michelle O'Neill] is one), Intimate Apparel is a nearly perfect example of its kind. But its kind is pretty puzzling to me. In a sense, with Intimate Apparel, there's nothing for an audience member to do. You just sit there and let the play fill you up. Taking a personal perspective or watching the play through a particular lens is basically perverse. For example, I would have liked to spend the entire evening staring at cloth, stitches, and costuming, but this production doesn't expect you to draw any kind of meaning from the actual fabric. In fact (and this is my sole complaint about props and costuming), the item which could tell us the most about Esther, the crazy quilt in which she keeps her savings, is utterly bland--not a fancy stitch on it. Part of my brain kept track of how the mostly white audience enjoyed being let in on bluesy conversations between two black women, but I don't think we're meant to see our own behavior at all during this play. Again, I'm being perverse.
Sorry, Elle, I think I'm off track. You ask me to review a play and suddenly I'm reviewing an entire genre of theater. Back to the subject at hand.
Elle: Staring at fabric or stitching is doing something? How is that any different from watching the "action" on stage? Though I agree that the quilt should have been a little more fancy shmancy. As for seeing our "own behavior," are you directing that to all the white people in the audience? What about the Blacks or the Jews? Although I think I might know what you're getting at, I'm not totally sure. And do we have to "see our own behavior?" What's wrong with just enjoying the play, being touched by it? Rooting for Esther? Or, (here comes a Rox line) staring at the very handsome Sterling K. Brown who plays George Armstrong and is a fine actor?
And in the same vein as the relationship between Mrs. Van Buren and Esther, was at the end of the play when part of the stage rises up: Esther is sitting at her sewing machine and lights along the bottom inform us that this is a picture of an unnamed, black, seamstress (or something to that effect.) I feel as if this overt political statement was overkill. Just as Mrs. Van B's feelings about Esther were obvious (though subtle), the subtext of the play was clear to me. I didn't need glowing letters to point it out to me. Maybe this sort of speaks to your point about not seeing our own behavior. It's as if the message is, This play isn't about you, and you need to be instructed on the way it was for every "minority" we can throw into the mix--lesbians, Orthodox Jewish men, African American Women, Caribbean men, and prostitutes." And like I said before, though the audience was mostly white, there were some African Americans, at least one and Jew, probably some lesbians, not sure about Caribbean men or prostitutes, but definitely no Orthodox Jews. So despite the era in which this play was set, surely some of us saw ourselves in some form or another?
I'm not sure why I'm now fixated on the "our own behavior" aspect, because I doubt I would have given it much thought had you not pointed it out. Sure, I always notice the demographics of the audience, but in Minnesota it's just a given that the crowd will be mostly white-even though the Guthrie puts on a number of plays each year that don't speak to the mainstream experience.
Lightsey: Let me backtrack a bit and answer the question "what's wrong with just enjoying the play, being touched by it? Rooting for Esther?" Nothing's wrong with that. In fact, it's absolutely the only way to see this play. You can't focus on fabric or stitching because that would be doing nothing--that would be an utterly perverse way to view the show, and wouldn't yield anything. Similarly, being self-conscious during this show is pretty pointless. Intimate Apparel doesn't seek to implicate us in anything. And that's okay; I don't need to be implicated every time I watch something; being implicated gets tiring. But here's my point: there's only one way to see Intimate Apparel, and once you've seen it that's it. There aren't other fruitful viewpoints on this show. I might even go so far as to say that this show is aimed at a certain standard audience, and taking any other perspective--seeing the show as a black woman, a Caribbean man, or an Orthodox Jew--won't be productive of more meaning.
Why am I suddenly so militant about this? I enjoyed the show, after all. But I'm irritated with its flatness.
Elle: Wow, Lights, you are irritated. Kind of the way I usually am... My final words: Despite the fact that I mostly agree with you, and despite my own criticisms, I still give this play two thumbs way up for being one of the most emotionally engaging plays I've ever seen, for keeping me guessing how everything would turn out, for an interesting narrative, for realistic yet colorful characters, and for one of the most enjoyable play-going experiences I've had in a long time.