Theater reviews: “Intimate Apparel” and “Shhhh”


By Ricky Ian Gordon and Lynn Nottage Intimate Clothing, at Lincoln Center.
Photo: Charles Erickson

Too bad for the Metropolitan Opera. Those 3,800 seats, the balconies of the wedding cake, the starry chandeliers – what charged all is. The chamber opera does not breathe there and the immensity of the room crushes all that is fine, personal, Alexandrian, prudent. In the recent Eurydice, for example, Matthew Aucoin’s opera ends when Orpheus steps on a piece of paper. But how many people have actually seen it done? Judging by the post show conversations in my row, not enough.

So it’s a big deal that the Met has figured out how to go small. Teaming up with the Lincoln Center Theater for the first time, it co-produces the premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon and Lynn Nottage intimate clothes in the (comparatively tiny) 299-seat Mitzi Newhouse Theater next door. “Intimate” is right there in the title, so to keep things as focused as possible, director Bartlett Sher puts the show on Mitzi’s thrust stage: the audience wraps three-quarters around the small platform. circular shape, looking down like observers in an operating theatre. It’s a Sher show, so the stage spins (a lot) and the actors frantically move parts in and out. Yet despite this bustle of busy bees, intimate clothes lets us get close to its characters, close enough to see the details – the loose knob, the hesitant touch – that spin and shape the story.

Nottage’s libretto stays true to her original 2003 play, in which lonely seamstress Esther (Kearstin Piper Brown) sews corsets in 1905 New York. Her parents were “born and died slaves,” but Esther’s skills carry her across class and race, addressing both the wealthy, white Mrs. Van Buren (Naomi Louisa O’Connell) and the nightclub singer Tenderloin Mayme (Krysty Swann). Esther, ecclesiastic and starchy, is a little prudish, but she finds friends everywhere: her clients adore her, her landlady Mrs. Dickson (the amazing Adrienne Danrich) tries to marry her off. Despite her illiteracy, Esther begins a correspondence with a man in Panama named George (Justin Austin) – “I see beyond all that is green on the horizon / and I imagine you”, he writes, crossing the stage and his romantic imagination. Too late, after they’re married, she realizes she’s misinterpreted many things, including her friendship with Jewish cloth merchant Mr. Marks (Arnold Livingston Geis), and her carefully crafted future falls apart.

Ricky Ian Gordon’s music occasionally interpolates Mayme’s ragtime stride a bit, but for the most part his modern, melodic music sets Nottage’s language abstractly, emphasizing the odd words in sentences, working against rather only with their meaning. Instead of an orchestra, two pianists sit on high platforms against the far wall, so we lose some of Gordon’s characteristic feeling and lushness – if you see his The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, currently playing in a production of the New York City Opera downtown, you’ll hear how much better his work sounds with symphonic orchestration. In intimate clothes, however, Gordon’s composition never lets itself be overwhelmed or overwhelming; he consciously stays away from intimacy. Gordon’s pianos maintain a constant, opaque emotional timbre, whether Esther is in elation or fear, alone or in company.

Luckily, we’re close enough to be able to read the feelings crossing the performers’ faces – at Mitzi, singers can afford to turn inward, confident that we’ll see any subtle changes. Sher and the awesome company built the performance exactly the right size for the space. Austin is particularly good at shutting down his expression, flapping hurricane hatches behind his eyes; Brown maintains a wonderful bluntness and impatience, only slowing and softening Esther’s gestures when she reaches out to touch taffeta, wool, or silk. Ms. Dickson almost takes the show away from the main characters, thanks to the way Danrich finds the blue notes in her operatic phrasing, giving it a feverish touch in a sea of ​​colder sounds. But Austin, Brown and Geis continue to take over the show, performing scenes of misunderstanding and nostalgia, all of which are judged acutely, even painfully.

Do intimate clothes really need to become an opera? Most of my enjoyment in the show came from elements that are pure Nottage: without Gordon’s music, it was already a delightfully woven piece, dense with threads about self-reliance, true seeing and the need for touch. . Some pieces thrive when adapted (Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydicefor example) but intimate clothes remains almost unchanged by this particular conversion. As a proof of concept for an opera co-production model, however, it was an inspired choice. Who doesn’t want to see this play again? In any shape? And the concept works. Finally, after a million years of sitting next to each other in the plaza of Lincoln Center, the Met and Mitzi Newhouse have bonded, and I want to see them do it again and again. The hall serves opera beautifully, and whatever my opinion of these specific compositions, there is an inevitable excitement at being so close to world-class voices. Imagine a roaring fighter jet in front of you, barely above your head. He feels dangerous just being in his way.

A certain flicker of danger is also part of Clare Barron’s graphic Hush at Small Stage 2 of the Atlantic Theater Company. It is a play that is also concerned with intimacy – with underwear, sex and misery. There is less craftsmanship in Hush than in some of Barron’s other plays; crazy Dionysian excess of dance nation Where I will never love again appears, but it’s not so contagious here. As she has done before, Barron uses a cabinet of curiosities approach to her own psyche – seeshe seems to be saying, here’s my brain in a jar, isn’t that useful and weird? But this time, she loses her grip on the play’s humor, causing the whole show to turn inward. A game of Barron without a laugh is hard to take.

Barron often writes autobiographically (one show used his own childhood diary), which gives his increasingly unsettling pieces a hellish glow. She also started directing and acting in them, in which case you watch her carve her own memories on stage. Here she plays the main character, Shareen, and his detached half-smile sets the tone. Shareen talks about crossed sexual lines with her not-boyfriend Kyle (Greg Keller) – Barron smiles. Shareen talks degradation and explosive diarrhea with her sister, Witchy Witch (the superbly odd Constance Shulman) – Barron smiles. Shareen overhears a conversation between two young women at a pizza place (Nina Grollman and Annie Fang), discussing the shit the men have done to them. She chooses a pizza and smiles and smiles and smiles. His sister is his wiser counterpart, and the piece begins with a long, well-delivered ASMR episode in which Shulman whispers about tea and rubs lavender in a honeyed voice. It could be a proposal for a way to engage in non-male-focused self-care, or it could be Barron’s effort to make us all feel the tingle – if that’s the kind of thing that works. for you.

At first the production, expertly designed by Arnulfo Maldonado and lit by Jen Schriever, gives off sex dungeon vibes (there’s black plastic on the lobby walls), but once Witchy Witch has a date at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, the scenes all start to look like… exhibits. Shareen’s bathroom looks a bit like a habitat display; a wax woman with viscera piled on her belly rests in a display case; the naturalistic pizzeria set unfolds like a small diorama. It’s smart, but Barron is hesitant to stage action scenes in this crowded space, especially when the Witchy Witch starts running around the paintings, chasing Kyle for revenge on her sister’s behalf. The play tries desperately to get comical but fails, both because Barron lacks the stage sense for farce and because the show is already so far into inky-black despair. .

In interviews, Barron has called theater her “penchant for exhibitionism,” but despite all that fringe transgression (for example, she pulls out her DivaCup on stage), she’s into some of the same things that Nottage is very much into. larger audience. Mainly, can you make an audience feel something without touching it? Nottage uses suggestion and kinetic sympathy: she shows us silk; we feel it against our cheek. Barron tries to have a direct effect on our somatic responses, either through ASMR or late stomach-turning stuff with bodily fluids. They’re fascinating as strategies, but they make weird (and counterproductive) bedfellows with Barron’s rather cool Observer energy. It ends up sounding a bit like Gordon’s music in Intimate Clothing, a barrier to intimacy rather than a conduit for it. She is brave, certainly, and she must feel this game deeply. But she seems to pull away from us as we look at her – beckoning us to trust her, but constantly turning away.

intimate clothes is at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
Hush is in Stage 2 of the Atlantic until February 20.


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