Continuing its exploration of the expressive possibilities of amalgamated narrative, spoken dialogue, muscular dance, music and physical objects (mostly fabric), Rachel Dickstein’s Ripe Time company adapts three stories featuring brides-to-be into “Betrothed.” The conversation among the tales isn’t as trenchant as those behind the production believe, and communication with the audience also leaves something to be desired. But consistent invention and commitment mark Dickstein and team — especially composer Vijay Iyer and lighting designer Nicole Pearce — as talents to watch.
On Susan Zeeman Rogers’ sandstone-colored, henna-tattoo-decorated groundcloth, thesps shift with finesse among dialogue, Story Theater direct address and movement (both swift, gestural statements and longer dance set-pieces), all to the ravishing live accompaniment of Iyer’s sophisticated, raga- and jazz-influenced score.
Meanwhile, three tall rectangular niches in the back wall, complementing the Ohio Theater’s permanent columns, highlight our three heroines, whose stories — which have little in common except impending wedlock — have been retrofitted to the occasion, not always felicitously.
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Treatment of Bibi Haldar,” the title character (Mahira Kakkar) is a scary, wild-eyed epileptic who seeks a wedding as her cure. By changing the focus from the nosy community performing the “treatment” to the girl herself, Dickstein substitutes mawkish sentiment for sardonic satire. Lovely images, such as the long saffron and orange silk banners wrapped around Kakkar like a giant flower with her glowing face at its center, nevertheless distract from tale’s essential mystery, and cast botches the many opportunities for humor.
In Anton Chekhov’s “Betrothed,” bourgeois Nadya (Lula Graves) abandons hearth and home for radical student Sasha (Derek Lucci), close relative of Trofimov in “The Cherry Orchard.” Nadya’s dilemma is ingeniously staged with a pair of transparent castered screens that nudge and spin the girl to evoke her romantic fever. But Dickstein has Sasha played as a blandly disengaged gent, so Nadya’s choice becomes the stuff of a Lifetime movie rather than a pre-revolutionary act.
Mystical, metaphorical essence of S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk” lends itself best to Ripe Time’s total theater approach, though those unfamiliar with the folk tale may find it hard to follow.
There’s genuine excitement as the pious Leah (Paula McGonagle) is inhabited by the tortured spirit of her deceased soulmate, Chonen (Lucci, finding the fire he lacks as Sasha). A hallucinatory masked parody of the Jewish wedding ceremony is followed by a fierce battle with the Dybbuk (Daniel Irizarry) marked by acrobatics and body slams to Iyer’s unrelenting percussion.
All three parts are stunningly lit by Pearce, who avoids both self-consciousness and excessive literalism in sculpting the dance space while giving the narrative realities their due.
The backlighting transformation of Leah and Chonen into silhouettes after death, joining the returning silhouettes of Bibi and Nadya, doesn’t finally serve to make “Betrothed” cohere. But as a final reminder of the visual and aural pleasures of this little Ripe Time experiment, it leaves one eager to see what the gifted troupe will come up with next.