Whatever you do, don’t call Rachel Dickstein’s work ‘physical theatre.’ Though the play adaptor and artistic director of Ripe Time theatre company uses movement and choreography almost as interchangeably as dialogue, she sighs over the associations that come with the dance theatre territory. “People have different ideas for what movement theatre means,” she explains. “For me, it’s a way of telling the story in a more total way. It has nothing to do with deconstructing something so that it becomes abstracted. I’m doing it because I’m really interested in creating insight into someone’s thoughts.”
Deconstructed or not, Dickstein’s methods seem to be working. She has been compared to her mentor Martha Clark and described as “a maverick illusionist.” Dickstein’s most recent play Innocents, an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth, won praise from New York critics. Phoebe Hoban described a “a ravishing moment when a red velvet dress becomes a carpet and then a roiling, blood hued sea on which Lily struggles to balance; a veiled dervish-dance in which she is enmeshed in tulle, both spider’s web and bridal garb, and a point when she is both bound and bandaged by a crimson banner.” Words like “ravishing,” “seamless,” and “universal” pepper more than one review and they could similarly describe Dickstein’s latest project, Betrothed, which premieres at the Ohio Theatre May 4–26.
Betrothed is a triptych that draws on The Treatment of Bibi Haldar, by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Betrothed, by Anton Chekhov, and The Dybbuk by S. Ansky. A workshop last summer, also at the Ohio, was what Dickstein calls “a draft.” In describing her rehearsal process she refers to dance companies. “A 20 minute dance could take 9 months of rehearsing 5 days a week. We’re not choreographing pure dance but there’s enough movement in it that it would be impossible for us to do a 4 week rehearsal.” Instead Ripe Time goes with a 6-7 week rehearsal period and then puts on a workshop. The final production requires a further 6 weeks’ work.
I was able to watch the first draft of Betrothed on DVD. At first, I didn’t want to. Most live theatre reads woefully dull on a flat screen, but to my surprise this wasn’t the case. Perhaps it had something to do with the enormous amount of onstage energy or the powerful live music (composed by Vijay Iyer). Performed in August, I could make out audience members fanning themselves throughout the performance and sensed their enjoyment when dance sequences included sweeping gestures with large saris.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Treatment of Bibi Haldar is the first story told, and its lyrical quality was breathtaking even on my 13-inch MacBook. It is about an epileptic woman who dreams of getting married like everyone around her. To her delight, doctors believe that nuptials will cure her. “This was the episode that got me thinking that I could stage this story,” Dickstein recounts. “What would it look like if this very normal, nondescript woman imagines herself at the heart of this spectacular ceremony?” Though Dickstein believes all of Lahiri’s stories are “remarkably well observed” (and they are) it seemed to her the Bibi Haldar narrative had the most potential for magic. “I don’t do straight realism,” she says. “I think about dramatizing psychological space and internal thought and how that gets painted out in a dynamic, movement-driven way.”
Chekhov was a natural pair because Lahiri has said she feels a certain lineage to him and other Russian authors, according to Dickstein. Her novel The Namesake, for example, (which Mira Nair recently adapted for film) is based on a character named after Nikolai Gogol. Incidentally, at a Ripe Time benefit in March many party goers asked Lahiri (who attended the benefit) how she felt about her literature being transformed to film and theatre. “Jhumpa graciously said, ‘When people come to me with an artistic vision, I respect that and I love what they do with it.’” Dickstein recalls. “It was the ultimate stamp of approval.”
Dickstein was set with the Lahiri/Chekhov pair but realized both stories have qualified endings, neither of which culminates in a wedding. “I didn’t want the evening to be about women wanting to marry and their hopes being dashed. My interest in weddings is how the idea of a ceremony is in communication with thousands of years of history and culture. A wedding ceremony is about two individuals and how they respond to society.” Dickstein continues sotto voce, “I wasn’t even thinking about it in terms of ceremony in America where it’s parties, dresses, and flowers,” she says with a laugh, “but when the ceremony is about the spirituality, about a person doing certain actions. So I decided there has to be a ceremony in here or an attempt at a wedding.”
Enter The Dybbuk, S. Ansky’s Yiddish yarn of a woman possessed. After rereading the original 4-act version, Dickstein decided to stage it from the point of view of Leah, the heroine. In the end, there is a marriage, and though it is not a traditional wedding, the two lovers ultimately unite. It’s a natural completion to the triumvirate of tales.
Ever since college, Dickstein has focused on adapting well-known stories for the stage. Her first project was a take on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, which alternates between sections of dialogue and descriptions of nature. Dickstein determined the nature descriptions could be dance and the dialogue could be dramatic text. “We came up with a splendid mess of something. It was so interesting to me to figure out how to put a novel on stage that is that dense and rich and beautiful,” she effuses. “Ever since then that’s all I’ve wanted to do.”
Betrothed, conceived, written, and directed by Rachel Dickstein runs May 4-26 at the Ohio Theatre (66 Wooster Street between Spring and Broome, SoHo, NYC) Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 7pm & 10pm, Sunday at 7 pm) Tickets: $25 ($20 Students and Seniors with ID) 212.868.4444.
Despite popular misconception, Eliza Bent is neither a vegetarian nor a Park Slope resident. She eats meat and lives in Soho and goes to school for playwriting at Brooklyn College. In her spare time, she's an editor at American Theatre magazine.