Some Chicago-area theaters plan to welcome back live audiences with shows that were physically on their stages at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown last year.
That's not the case with Intimate Apparel at Northlight Theatre in Skokie. Local director Taisa A. Jones' production of Lynn Nottage's 2004 drama has been rescheduled to April 2022, even though the show eked out one preview performance before being halted on March 12, 2020.
But theatergoers who really want to see Jones' take on Intimate Apparel can see a new production at the 2021 Utah Shakespeare Festival (USF) on the campus of Southern Utah University in Cedar City. I actually did that when I paid a recent visit to see family and friends in Utah.
"It's slightly surreal," said Jones about making her USF debut with Intimate Apparel, which officially opened on July 19.
"The [Northlight staging] was designed and processed and it certainly influenced how I came into this production at USF," Jones said. "It was a lot of new energy and great new perspectives from different collaborators to add to what I had already been thinking about the play. I was able to look at it with clearer eyes because I had been away from doing theater at all during the pandemic."
Jones said all USF actors and crew had to have COVID-19 vaccinations before they could be hired, and that masks were worn by production staff during Intimate Apparel rehearsals. And due to the USF's repertory rehearsal, Jones enjoyed her downtime by visiting national parks in Southern Utah.
Along with Jones, the USF Intimate Apparel shares Northlight connections with actor Yao Dogbe who stars the same role of the Barbados laborer George, along with Raquel Adorno as the same costume designer. Other actors with strong Chicago credits in the USF cast include Jasmine Bracey as the rooming house owner Mrs. Dickson and Tiffany Scott as the high-society lady Mrs. Van Buren.
Nottage's Intimate Apparel was inspired by her own family history. She had discovered that one of her ancestors was a seamstress who made a living in early 20th century New York by making undergarments for women of all classes.
Nottage's dramatization of her family past focuses on Esther (Afua Busia), who initially seems resigned to a life of hard work and spinsterhood. But Esther changes her tune when she starts being romantically courted via letters by George as he labors on the Panama Canal.
Unlike other productions of Intimate Apparel that physically fragment the play's multiple locations, Jones fluidly stages the drama centrally so Esther's contrasting high- and low-brow worlds of wealthy mansions, fabric stores and whorehouses all occur in one space.
The one exception is the far-away letters from George, who almost magically appears from behind a back-of-the-stage scrim. This effect was masterfully crafted by set designer Stephen Jones in tandem with sound and projection designer Joe Payne and lighting designer Donna Ruzika.
Intimate Apparel featured strong, all-around performances from Jones' talented cast, which also included Constance V. Swain as the musically talented sex worker Mayme and Josh Innerst as the enthusiastic Jewish fabric merchant Mr. Marks.
Intimate Apparel also benefited from the wonderfully cozy setting of the indoor Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatrean adaptable 200-seat space that is part of a massive Beverly Sorenson Center for the Arts that opened in 2016.
The complex's main centerpiece is the outdoor 921-seat Englestad Shakespeare Theatre, which replaced the earlier 1977 Globe-inspired outdoor Adams Theatre (which has not been demolished, but is not in use for full-scale productions by the USF).
Since my last visit the USF was in 2010, I was really keen to experience the new complex and its larger, more expansive outdoor theater. This summer, was able to catch the romance play Pericles, Prince of Tyre, plus the historical tragedy Richard III.
The Englestad is far more accessible to audiences, even sporting an elevator to the balcony. It also undoubtedly sports a much bigger backstage area.
But the hard-edged Englestad lacks the coziness and warmth I remembered of the Adams Theatre. So even though I largely enjoyed the performances, the physical space created a certain level of detachment from the drama of both Pericles and Richard III.
Pericles director Kent Thompson smartly worked with costume designer Karin Simonson Kopischke to lavishly color-code and differentiate the play's multiple Mediterranean locales. The episodic play, which is essentially the equivalent of Jacobean sci-fi, is interesting to see as a Shakespearean rarity rather than a great work.
Director Cameron Knight's production of Richard III featured the skilled title performance of Aidan O'Reilly, who quite rightfully dominated the production with a shout-filled and menacing portrayal of the York nobleman who connives his way to be king.
Although I wish some of the casting in Pericles and Richard III could have included more seasoned actors in key roles, both productions lived up to the lavish costumed pageantry that USF audiences come to expect.
The four USF productions this writer caught over the course of two days were all diversely cast, and the programming of Intimate Apparel alongside the musical Ragtime in the indoor 770-seat Randall L. Jones Theatre created a nice dialogue between the works. Both Intimate Apparel and Ragtime are set in similar time periods, yet prove very timely for today (uncomfortably so in the case of Ragtime in light of all the social upheavals of 2020).
So in this year following the death of USF founder Fred C. Adams at the age of 89, it's clear that artistic director Brian Vaughn (who also directed Ragtime) is keeping up with the times and thoughtfully steering the festival ahead into the future beyond its 60th anniversary season.
Taisa A. Jones affectionately likened her time directing Intimate Apparel at USF to a "theater summer camp." And since these were the first Shakespeare and indoor musical performances I've taken in since early 2020, I, too, was more than grateful to spend some of my summer joyously returning to live theater-going at this long-standing Utah theatrical institution.
Intimate Apparel continues through Oct. 9 at the indoor Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre, while Pericles and Richard III respectively run through Sept. 9 and 10 at the outdoor Englestad Shakespeare Theatre at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, 351 Center St., Cedar City. Other 2021 USF productions include The Comedy of Errors, Cymbeline, Ragtime and The Pirates of Penzance. For more information, visit bard.org .