Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Far Country and Intimate Apparel: Identity and Remembrance

Eric Yang, Jinn S. Kim, and Amy Kim Waschke in The Far Country. (Photo: Ahron R. Foster)

The Far Country, recently produced by the Atlantic Theatre, begins in 1909 on Angel Island, outside San Francisco, where Chinese who seek citizenship undergo relentless, repetitive, often confusing interrogations designed to locate the tiny contradictions in their stories. In this case the candidate, Gee (Jinn S. Kim), was born in San Francisco to an immigrant who came over to America to work in the mines and an unknown mother – likely a prostitute. In his interview he explains that he went back to China to start a family, then left them behind to return to the States and begin a laundry business. Now he is seeking to visit his wife and children, already grown, in China. This story, we learn in the next scene, is a scam, at least the part about his family in the old country. In a small Chinese village Gee finds a widow (Amy Kim Waschke) in desperate straits – she owes money to a gangster she can never repay – whose son, Moon Gyet (Eric Yang), Gee wants to pass off as his own. If the boy, who is about sixteen, can memorize the narrative Gee has prepared for him and withstand the Angel Island interrogators, then Gee will pay the widow’s debts and Moon Gyet can work off the cost of his passage in his employ. Moon Gyet is bright, strong-willed and full of conviction, and though he has to stay on Angel Island for nearly two years, through two appeals of his case, ultimately he attains citizenship. Gee bankrolls the extended process (the cost includes bribes), adding years to the young man’s indentured servitude, but Moon Gyet considers himself lucky: not only has he won entrance to America, “the gold mountain,” but he’s kept his mother and siblings alive. In the second act he returns to his village, dressed as an American gentleman, in search of a young woman from a similarly destitute family he wants to pass off as his wife. He is, in the vernacular of the time, selling his name.

This is a human trafficking tale like no other I’ve come across, where the trafficker isn’t a heartless villain and the issues are far too complex for melodramatic resolution. In an era where racism and xenophobia have kept Chinese from winning American citizenship after generations of them have been used as virtual slave labor, Gee and then his illegally adopted son and Moon Gyet’s alleged wife, Yuen (Shannon Tyo), find better lives while helping to build a Chinese legacy in the American West. The playwright, Lloyd Suh, is a disciple of Brecht who attracted notice with The Chinese Lady, which has been performed all over the country. The Chinese Lady is a kind of Brechtian lehrstücke or ironic morality play about a young Chinese woman who spends her life as a living exhibit in American freak shows, and I don’t care for it; its didacticism, obvious and reductive, wears me down. (To be fair, I’ve only read it; perhaps something happens in performance that transcends its limitations on the page.) And in The Far Country the two scenes between Moon Gyet and his mother, Low, Suh falls into the same trap: Low and to a lesser extent Moon Gyet sound like they’re reciting undigested political messages. And every now and then the sort of satirical folk humor that makes me cringe even in a great Brecht work like The Good Person of Szechwan or The Caucasian Chalk Circle slips into Suh’s writing. But these flaws aside, The Far Country is a very good play that does justice to a layered, fascinating subject. And Suh turns out to have a gift for poetic language that is evident especially in Moon Gyet’s lengthy monologue about his time on Angel Island, where the walls are covered with the writings of Chinese incarcerated there. They have been pasted over but as the paste shrinks and peels off, they reveal themselves – a sort of pentimento of suffering and remembrance.  What a great symbol! (The set designer, Clint Ramos, and the lighting designer, Jiyoun Chang, visualize this idea.)

The play is about the complicated interplay between transformation and memory. The lies that Gee and Moon Gyet and Yuen tell the immigration authorities become true: by the end of the play they have become the family they originally masqueraded as. But Yuen tells Gee that eventually, as the daughters she has borne Moon Gyet grow older, she will either have to start lying to them about her and their father’s past or let the truth bleed through. The body remembers the pain of the past, she insists:  “Everything we are, everything, it passes down.  We still carry it, as a family should.” The contradiction in that statement – in the use of the word family – gets at the dense, impossible weave of the Chinese American immigrant story. Suh is at his worst when he preaches, but when he reaches out for humanity you really lean in and listen. The last scene, between Yuen and Gee, whom she has been nursing through a fever, is beautiful. At the end, she coaxes him to eat the soup she’s made for him, feeding it to him slowly, and the director, Eric Ting, continues the action for a long time after the dialogue has ceased. It’s one of the most eloquent uses of silence I can remember. Ting has directed an excellent cast (including Whit K. Lee, and Christopher Liam Moore and Ben Chase as the Angel Island interrogators) with skill and sensitivity; only Waschke as the mother feels false, in ways that can’t simply be blamed on the problems in the writing of her scenes. The three leading actors, Yang, Kim and Tyo, are admirable.

Kearstin Piper Brown and Arnold Livingston Geis in Intimate Apparel. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

As a stage actress before she became a movie star, Viola Davis scored a hit off Broadway in Lynn Nottage’s 2003 play Intimate Apparel as an African American seamstress living in a New York boardinghouse shortly after the turn of the twentieth century whose loneliness drives her to accept the marriage proposal of a man she’s never met – a Barbadian working on the Panama Canal who writes her eloquent, imploring letters. Nottage based the character on her own great-grandmother, and her take on the irresistible idea of the epistolary courtship (Cyrano de Bergerac, The Shop Around the Corner), where the ironic tension between identity and perception is the dramatic pivot, is unusual and intriguing. Davis gave a fine performance as Esther, the heroine, but somehow the play didn’t take off; both on stage and on the page it’s gabby and mysteriously stillborn. Yet the opera version, with a libretto by Nottage herself and music by Ricky Ian Gordon, which played on the Mitzi Newhouse stage at Lincoln Center last season under Bartlett Sher’s direction and was televised on PBS’s Great Performances series in the fall, is a triumph. The transformation isn’t quite as astonishing as that of The Hours, the marvelous opera, premiered at the Met in November, that composer Kevin Puts and librettist Greg Pierce fashioned from Michael Cunningham’s insufferable novel and Stephen Daldry’s ridiculous movie. But both adaptations made the clear case that not only is opera its own unique creation but what doesn’t work in other genres can work brilliantly in operatic form, where dramatic fluidity has a different meaning – and where, of course, the music sweeps everything else before it.

Gordon is a prolific artist of whose work I know just a small portion. Some years ago a colleague at College of the Holy Cross staged My Life with Albertine, based on a section of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which contains some of the most unconventionally melodic music ever written for the American musical theatre – unconventional because it’s show music created by an opera composer, so it reverses the feat performed by Gershwin in Porgy and Bess, Kurt Weill in Street Scene, Leonard Bernstein in Candide and Frank Loesser in The Most Happy Fella, show composers working on a Broadway version of an operatic canvas. Intrigued, I sought out Gordon’s opera of The Grapes of Wrath, material I’ve always found intrinsically phony, and I liked it very much. The performance I saw of another Gordon opera, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, was a fizzle, but the music for Intimate Apparel is lyrical and ecstatic.

Esther (sung and acted with warmth and vivacity by Kearstin Piper Brown) is thirty-five, a child of slaves who made her way north with the dream of saving up enough money to open a beauty salon. But sewing (mostly) undergarments in her room at Mrs. Dickson’s isn’t just an interim job to her. She has an eye and a feel for the sensuous silks and satins and laces she purchases from Mr. Marx (Arnold Livingston Geis), the Hasidic Jew who saves the most sumptuous cloths for her and charges her less for them because her appreciation of them is full-hearted and rare. And because he’s in love with her, though he may not admit it even to himself; he is engaged to a young woman back in Romania, chosen for him by his parents, whom – like Esther with George – he has never met. Under his beard, Geis has a soft, little-boy face, and his tenor voice, though soaring, has a bewitching delicacy. He gives a sensitive reading of the role of the unassuming haberdasher who luxuriates in his materials from a discreet distance, restricted by his religion to a black suit that, he explains to Esther, reminds him of his relationship with God and his ancestors. His traditions forbid him from touching a woman who isn’t his wife, so the fact that their hands touch the same silks is the closest these two can come to lovemaking. Intimate Apparel wouldn’t work without the chemistry between Brown and Geis, whose scenes together are enchanting.

The opera gives Esther three confidants – Mrs. Dickson (Adrienne Danrich), a widow who was married to an opium addict, and two steady customers, Mayme (Krysty Swann), a prostitute and cabaret singer who dreams of performer in concert halls, and an aristocratic white woman named Mrs. Van Buren (Naomi Louisa O’Connell). She commissions Esther to make provocative undergarments for her to attract an indifferent husband whose only appeal for him is the possibility of bearing him a child, which hasn’t occurred. The first act foregrounds these ancillary female characters, but Mrs. Dickson fades out once Esther marries George, to resurface at the end. We miss her, and we miss Danrich’s presence – her combination of the life-affirming and the bittersweet – and her voice. Swann gives a dynamic performance. I had no quarrel with O’Connell’s singing but her portrayal of Mrs. Van Buren lacks the reserves of anger and irony that the role seems to call for, though she improves in the second act. Esther is illiterate, so Mrs. Van Buren offers to write her letters to George, and later she turns to Mayme to do the same, offering the excuse that a pricked finger has altered her handwriting.

In the opera’s complicated dramatic scheme the women double each other in various ways while Mr. Marks is a foil for George Armstrong (Justin Austin), the handsome, muscular canal worker who woos Esther by mail but turns out to be a disastrous match for her. Until he begins to court her, she is resigned to her lonely life, staying away from the celebrations when other boarders at Mrs. Dickson find husbands, but Nottage uses the suggestive quality of her trade to hint at the idea that she’s open to intimacy. (That’s one of the many connotations of the title.) When she marries George, she’s ready for a sexual life. He’s the one who’s uncomfortable in his skin – the child of “chattel,” as he puts it, he walks around with a simmering anger against men who have more than he does, and when he can’t get work in New York he simultaneously chafes against the notion that he has to rely on Esther to dole out money to him and resents her for holding tight to her savings. (She keeps them under her mattress!) Modest, cautious, in need of a patient, compassionate partner, she tries to adapt to marriage with George but it’s increasingly obvious that they don’t suit each other. He takes her money to gamble and cheats on her – with Mayme, who knows he has a wife but doesn’t realize who she is. Austin is charismatic and does justice to Gordon’s music; the problem is that, despite Nottage’s efforts to make him somewhat sympathetic, her own narrative structure positions him in the role of the bad guy.

Sher’s staging is superb. Largely through the use of the revolve, he keeps the action moving constantly, which is one of his trademarks. Michael Yeargan’s set consists of a door frame and a few sticks of furniture – notably, in the second act, a series of beds that remind us of not only Esther’s disappointed desires but Mrs. Van Buren’s and of the ironic development that gives Mayme the passionate life with George that Esther anticipated. The ensemble – built up from the stage play with the addition of a small, effective chorus – shifts the pared-down décor in and out as the revolve provides a sense of the forward movement of Esther’s story. When she receives George’s first letter he appears to her, a powerful, exotic creature striding across the stage, while beyond him a pair of male figures stands in silhouette, mysterious and ominous: what George is presenting to her is a façade but she doesn’t know it and neither do we. (The peerless Jennifer Tipton lit the production.) The second act begins with the wedding night, where Esther and George keep circling each other, struggling to find a meeting place, struggling to get away from their separate pasts. Then, as she sings about George, Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren begin to circle them, moving in to dress Esther like handmaidens helping her into this new phase of her life. Sher brings back the shadowy men in the climactic scene where Esther confesses to George that she didn’t write her own letters and finally gets him to admit that he didn’t either – that he paid someone to do it. She’s already guessed that the man she married couldn’t be the man who penned the letters that won her.

The ironies of the plot work in the opera in a way that seemed more like melodrama in the play, but that’s hardly a surprise given opera’s grand legacy of deepening melodrama. Esther buys Japanese silk from Mr. Marks to make a smoking jacket for George as a wedding present, but he’s put off by its extravagance; Nottage doesn’t underline the point, but it’s clear that he thinks it feminizes him.  He gives it to Mayme, who shows it off to Esther; that’s how she learns about their affair. At the end, having recognized the nature of her own feelings for Mr. Marks, she makes a present of the jacket to him – and, in an exquisite gesture, he stands breathlessly still as he allows her to cross the traditional boundary between them and button it for him.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.   

No comments:

Post a Comment