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By Elizabeth Youngman Westphal
Special to Village News 

Take in 2 plays in a day

 

Last updated 10/1/2019 at 11:37pm

Daren Scott photo

Esther, played by Tamara McMillian, and Mr. Marks, played by Tom Steward, examine silk for making "Intimate Apparel."

For the first play, I saw two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage voice her great-grandmother’s life in “Intimate Apparel.”

It takes place in Lower Manhattan in 1905. Esther is still single and a virgin at 35.

At just 17 years old, Esther walked north working odd jobs, sleeping in barns, while surviving on handouts. Along the way someone taught her to sew, more specifically, to sew ladies’ undergarments.

Esther lives in the same rooming house with her sewing machine, fabricating undergarments to earn her living. She spends her entire life there.

Esther is brought to life by Tamara McMillian. She breathes life into Esther while exposing her vulnerability and self-doubt.

Church-going Esther does not distinguish between social rank. She cannot afford to. Serving both society ladies like Mrs. Van Buren as well as Mayme, the neighborhood hooker, both are treated with the same dignity and grace. McMillian truly is the star of this production.

However, others in the cast are equally present when onstage with her.

Like Mrs. Dickson, played by Melena Phillips. She has been Esther’s landlady for 18 years. While not quite a replacement mother for Esther, Mrs. Dickson is always there to offer up sage advice, sprinkled with spunk and common sense.

Mrs. Van Buren, played by Gerilyn Brault, offers up the comedic relief, especially when she describes her marital relationship with her husband. Brault’s alluring secret is beguiling as she offers Esther more than bargained for in trade for her friendship.

On the flip side of society is Mayme. She is brash and guileless. Cashae Monya rips up the stage every time her key light turns on. She is shameless and vulnerable at the same time. Monya wears her heart for the audience to see.

As it happens, Esther is ultimately pursued through a letter-writing campaign by George. Originally from Barbados, he, played by Taurian McLeod, is now working as one of the thousands of Caribbean men digging the Panama Canal. As their letter-writing friendship develops over the next six months; it leads to love and opportunity. George arrives in Manhattan. McLeod takes advantage of his good looks, physical attributes and gift for language.

Nearby in a third-floor flat is Mr. Marks, played by Tom Steward, the purveyor of fine fabrics. Esther frequents his shop for her undergarment business.

Further complicating their friendship is the fact that Esther is an unmarried African American woman. Marks is a Hasidic Jew bachelor or so the story suggested. He is bound by his strict religious doctrine. Holding true to his beliefs, which say he cannot touch a woman who is not his wife, Marks’ tender feelings for Esther never waver. Yet he does offer Esther deep discounts on the rare bits of trim and cherished lengths of silk he preserves just for her.

Their relationship is complicated. And they show the audience how treasured it is. Steward portrays Mr. Marks with power and self-restraint to perfection.

Everything about Esther’s story is dear. And here comes the “but.” But, director Melissa Coleman-Reed needs to kick-up the pace. Not every breath requires a pause. The tempo needs to click up in order to get the audience home the same day. It need not be a three hour play even when starting late. The set design is terrific, sound and lighting, too.

By the way, “Nottage is the first woman in history to win two Pulitzer Prizes for her dramatic writing,” A.J. Knox, director of connectivity, said in the playbill.

“Intimate Apparel” will play at New Village Arts at 2787 State Street in Carlsbad until Oct. 20. There is lots of free parking behind at the Amtrak lot. Contact the box office at (760) 433-3245 or http://www.newvillagearts.org. This show is rated 9.5 out of 10.

For the second play, I saw “Kiss My Aztec,” which is flaunted to be the South American equivalent to “Hamilton” and the “Book of Mormon.”

Let’s take a look. First, how does one set the obliteration of the Aztec civilization to song? Or how does human sacrifice fit into lyrics even with a rap beat?

Finally, finding both “Hamilton” and “Book of Mormon” vulgar – I could agree, “Kiss My Aztec” falls into their ranks. Just so it is clear. I am forever aggravated by a late start. Twelve minutes past opening, “Showtime Homey” was the introduction to the opening song “White People on Boats.” It appears John Leguizamo is rewriting history.

Actually, it was the Spanish in 1517 that arrived with three ships and about 100 men followed two years later by Don Hernán Cortés’ arrival that ultimately annihilated the remaining 240,000 Aztecs who had somehow survived the influx of European diseases inflicted upon the people.

Once killed off, it was Cortés who built Mexico City on top of the Aztec ruins. Did Leguizamo not learn anything while attending school in Queens?

By the way, Leguizamo leaves no sect untouched. He is obsessed by his 12-year-old-penis-fixated-playground humor. It seems as a writer that he has lost his comedic voice along with his moral compass.

“Kiss My Aztec” reeks of sexual innuendo, going so far as to gay-bash a Spanish court priest calling him St. Francis of A-Sissy. OK, that is kinda funny.

Mrs. Van Buren, played by Gerilyn Brault, reflects after a fitting with Esther.

With a nod to commedia dell’arte, Leguizamo dresses a fool with an enormous jewel-studded-penis codpiece to debauch the Spanish princess. No big surprise, the antics descend into lewd, sophomoric unimaginativeness. Oh, wait, there is more. Human sacrifice is set to rap. As the extracted human heart is eaten while descending from the altar, I must ask, where is the entertainment value?

I quote Leguizamo, “I don’t want to take anybody down. I want to be inclusive – and to really make a difference.” And so, he is. He is inclusive; he insults every class, ethnic, gender, race and religion.

“Kiss My Aztec” cannot be reviewed by me. Fact of the matter is by the time intermission arrived my well-being took a dive. Apparently, many others had a similar experience, as they too, fled at the intermezzo.

“Kiss My Aztec” is playing at La Jolla Playhouse until Oct. 13. Contact the box office at (858) 550-1010 or http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org for tickets. This show is unrated.

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal can be reached by email at eyoungman@reedermedia.com.

 

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