nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
May 6, 2007
In the world's vast expanse of cultural differences—both among different societies and different historical eras—one of the few rituals that almost every culture shares is the rite of marriage. Compiling three tales from different cultural and historical contexts into a theatrical triptych, Betrothed examines the hopes and expectations of three would-be brides in three hoped-for, but thwarted, marriages.
In the first tale—taken from Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize winning compilation Interpreter of Maladies—Bibi is the epileptic ward of her married cousin in Calcutta who is desperate to find a husband, but is prevented by the prejudices associated with her medical condition. The second piece, adapted from a Chekhov short story entitled "Betrothed," features Nadya, who rejects her long awaited marriage thanks to the seeds of doubt planted in her mind by her skeptical distant relation, Sasha. In the final piece—based on the turn-of-the-century Yiddish play The Dybbuk by S. Ansky—Leah finds herself seduced away from her impending marriage by the spirit of a dead Yeshiva student who was originally destined to be her true mate.
Ripe Time's company mission is to "explore the meeting ground between dance and theatre," and Betrothed intersperses a straightforward narrative storytelling style with a series of beautifully conceived movement pieces that are delivered with great skill and precision by its ensemble cast. Director Rachel Dickstein has a clear talent for using movement to create beautiful images both on a grand scale and in smaller more intimate moments. The results are often breathtaking and poignant, such as when the ensemble wraps Bibi in flowing multicolored sheets as she luxuriates in the ecstasy of her hopes and dreams, or when Nadya twirls away from her groom-to-be gasping towards the audience in a brief stylized fit of suffocation. Some of the most imaginative physical work is in the third story, where dancers are literally bouncing off the walls at times, and we are treated to a lovely stylized duet between Leah and the physical manifestation of the spirit of her deceased lover as he possesses—and is then expelled from—her body.
In comparison, the moments where the text is driving the piece tend to be a little more prosaic. Dickstein is credited with writing the piece as well as directing and conceiving it, but adapting seems more appropriate for much of it, as much of the dialogue in at least the Chekhov and Ansky pieces has been lifted verbatim from the original source material. The text often seems very literary and earthbound, and often it alternates—rather than integrates—with the movement elements of Betrothed. The movement sequences seem more like the accompanying pictures to an illustrated text, rather than a true meeting ground between the two. While the approach is clear and very accessible in terms of delivering the stories, at times I found myself longing for a little more innovation in bringing word and movement together.
Still, the sheer wealth of talent that has been brought together in this piece—particularly in its design team—makes it a theatrical event to be reckoned with. Susan Zeeman Roger's scenic design and Oana Botez-Ban's costumes are beautiful, elegant, and fully functional—indicating the cultural touchstones of the three societies that are represented while still providing a unifying stylistic throughline. Nicole Pearce's lighting design is a gorgeous use of shifting colors, creating a dreamlike environment as it passes through the gentle amount of artificial fog that is generated throughout the piece. Composer Vijay Iyer's score—performed by Natacha Diels on flute and Greg Heffernan on cello—is both beautiful and unobtrusive.
But while Betrothed is unquestionably a stylistic achievement, I found the scope of inquiry of Betrothed a little limited overall. Dickstein has offered up a tasty cultural sampler in bringing these three stories together, but taken as a whole, Betrothed doesn't seem to offer a very wide or deep examination of the ritual of marriage. That Dickstein has narrowed her point of reference to that of the bride is fair enough, but it seems a conspicuous omission that we don't get to see what an impending marriage means to a woman who actually goes through with the process. It also seems conspicuous that the piece completely omits modern secular or western society, where marriage is much more commonly viewed as a matter of individual choice than it is/was in modern-day Calcutta, 19th century Russia, or among Eastern European Jews at the turn of the century.
In all three stories—whether intentional or not—the pursuit of marriage is portrayed as incompatible with a woman's hopes of finding personal freedom and self-fulfillment, which—particularly using these three cases as examples—is not a particularly fresh take on the subject. For Bibi the path to marriage is blocked, Nadya rejects it, and Leah in a sense redefines it for herself, but all three protagonists are unable to find happiness within the framework of traditional matrimony, and the question of whether or not the two can be reconciled is implicitly drawn but never examined. What seems to come across most strongly in Betrothed is that would-be brides—and perhaps their families and prospective grooms even more so—might want to reconsider the whole business before investing too much time and money on the arrangements.