Is there anything sexier than a pretty woman reading a book in her underwear? Working in an experimental performance idiom that is part dance and part theater, Ripe Time’s artistic director Rachel Dickstein refracts that static image into a series of dynamic book scenes and flowing dance movements that artfully capture the essence of Edith Wharton’s seminal 1905 novel “The House of Mirth.” If there are echoes of Martha Stewart and other contemporary overachievers in this story about the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of Wharton’s ambitious heroine Lily Bart, the thematic analogies are anything but coincidental.
“What a miserable thing it is to be a woman!” says Lily (a radiant performance by Paula McGonagle), in an early declaration of the independent spirit that charms men, angers women and misleads her into thinking she can make her defiant way in society. “It’s too tempting,” she says, when the dangerously attractive Lawrence Selden (Andy Paris) invites her up to his room for tea. “I’ll take the risk.”
Popular on Variety
That rash decision is the first of several misjudgments Lily makes about the degree of freedom she is allowed as an unmarried woman, without family or fortune, attempting to navigate her way into the upper ranks of New York society at the turn of the last century. Lily is an enchanting creature and by no means an immoral or unethical woman. But in her naive belief that she can coast for the rest of her days on the wit and charm that have made her the darling of her smart social set, she makes bad choices that envious enemies use to compromise her reputation.
Although not all of the seven actor-dancers in the ensemble are as convincing as McGonagle, or even as versatile as LeeAnne Hutchison, they are gorgeously functional as a troupe, enacting Lily’s tragic story in an impressionistic style that finds bold images and expressive movements for the emotions behind the words.
Emerging from behind giant, wrought-iron gates (the piece de resistance of Susan Zeeman’s stunning set) that signify the social barriers that keep Lily from the life she longs to lead, the performers group themselves and fall away in graceful visual patterns that alternately embrace and reject her.
The white-against-white costumes assembled by Ilona Somogyi are like gauzy pieces of armor that alternately expose and disguise the characters and their true motivations. Whatever moves — a veil of netting, a cloud of frilly hats, a coat of many pockets — moves beautifully to the lush strings of Katie Down’s melancholy music. And lies are hard to tell from truth in the painterly half-tones of Tyler Micoleau’s shadowy lighting scheme.
Lily suffers — how she does suffer at the hands of the social hypocrites who drew her up to drag her down — but in this stylized production she does so in grand and glorious style.