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A CurtainUp Review
The Innocents

What is the truth? Where a woman is concerned, it's what's easiest to believe. --Lily Bart
I'm a bad girl…I thought I could manage my own life!--Lily Bart

A Second Opionon. My enthusiasm for Edith Wharton's novels and short stories has increased in the course of many years of living just a few miles from Wharton's former estate in Lenox, Massachussets. Shakespeare & Company, which started its life on that estate, dramatized many of Wharton's work including one superb adaptation of House of Mirth. I'm glad I had a chance to see Rachel Dickstein's innovative adaptation before it runs its course next week.

The Innocents is a breathtaking blend of theater and dance. While the novel is of necessity condensed, Dickstein managed to capture the story and even Selden's famous "I believe in the republic of the spirit." She has made wonderful use of the Ohio's cavernous space, made even more so by the minimalist scenery. The most prominent prop -- the iron grill gates stunningly evoke the idea of people like Lily trapped inside the ironclad rules of the Gilded Age.

Jenny Sandman's review below sums up the production's assets and flaws quite accurately, though I would add a special commendation for Katie Down's lovely score for a chamber ensemble of cello, piano and and violin. With the Berkshires a virtual hotbed of theater, music and dance, surely someone will be smart enough to persuade Ms. Dickstein to bring her Ripe Time production to one of the many possible site-specific venues. -- Elyse Sommer, January 29, 2005.
Andy Paris &  Paula McGonagle
Andy Paris & Paula McGonagle
(Photo: Rachel Dickstein)
As Martha Stewart could tell you, for independent women, one miscalculation can cost you. Lily Bart, heroine of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth and its newest adaptation, The Innocents, seemingly has little in common with Martha Stewart. But both women were fiercely independent and both were determined to claw their way to the top--and money proved to be the downfall for both.

Now 100 years old, The House of Mirth is one of Wharton's most famous works. A novel of manners, it chronicles Lily Bart's struggle against artifice and societal constraints. Lily is poor but socially well-connected. She tries to land a rich husband despite her meager resources. She also tries to keep up with her much richer friends, but cannot, and amasses large gambling and clothing debts.

The weak Lily is unable to compete financially with her peers which drives her to seek help from a friend's husband who expects more than gratitude in return. Her true love, Lawrence Selden, is too poor to marry. When her friends begin to gossip, she becomes an outcast and is forced to make her way as a secretary and then a milliner. When she falls, she falls hard.

Rachel Dickstein's adaptation at the Ohio, is a beautiful if languorous show. She's captured the feel and spirit of the novel while preserving the theatricality of the piece. Wharton's words are nicely augmented with surreal images and graceful movements (akin to dances). At times the imagery is at odds with Lily's scheming, but this only serves to highlight her quiet desperation.

The play's progression is slow and stately -- a little too much so. The dreamy landscape slows down the plot development, and many minor characters appear only in passing. This is reasonable enough but, given the small cast, the doubling and trebling of parts leads to some confusion. Often it's hard to tell who exactly is being portrayed. And at two hours and forty minutes, the play sorely needs some tightening.

The shortcomings notwithsdanding, Dickstein's directorial scope is grand, and the adaptation is first-rate. The set, lighting and sound blend together in a seamless-ness that's very rare these days.

The empty stage is augmented only with large wrought-iron gates. Scene shifts are dictated by changes in light and sound. The costumes are pseudo-period; the men are dressed in the suits of the age, but the women are dressed only in long flowing underskirts and corsets (and the occasional hat), making the corsets the visual centerpiece. No doubt that's intentional, a comment on the constrained nature of the women. Indeed, at the very end of the play, Lily sheds her corsets and skirts and undoes her hair, finally free of all the trappings.

Paula McGonagle is both charming and heartbreaking as Lily Bart. She has a magnetism that's hard to resist. The rest of the cast is also to be commended for their versatility. Except for Andy Paris as Lawrence Selden, the company members play three to four parts each. All have a physical grace and rapport that fits the play's surrealism very well.

Wharton's words which recreated the shape of an age here create a wholly different, but complementary, shape. The Innocents represents an inventive new way to look at turn-of-the-century society and at Edith Wharton.

Conceived, adapted and directed by Rachel Dickstein; inspired by and freely adapted from Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth
With Margot Ebling, LeeAnne Hutchison, Paula McGonagle, Grant Neale, Christopher Oden, Andy Paris, Jill A. Samuels and Hillary Spector
Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau
Costume Design by Ilona Somogyi
Set Design by Susan Zeeman Rogers
Original Music and Sound by Katie Down
Running time: Two hours and forty minutes, with one ten-minute intermission
Ripe Time Productions at theOhio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street; 212-868-4444.
Monday, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 7 pm.
All tickets $20.
01/08/05 through 02/05/05
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on January 10th performance
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