Quiet jazz music fades as Isabel Archer enters the world of “La/Dy/Da.” The stage, three times as wide as it is long, is blue and a bit dull in luster, reminding one of twilight, that period before the dark, between one day and another. The set consists of three stage platforms, spaced out in a row; behind the platforms stand three canvases of trees, their leaves rectangles of orange, pink and white. Isabel, in a blue knee-length dress, sets her chair between two of the platforms, smiling at the audience.
Isabel Archer, played by Miranda Rizzolo ’15, has arrived in England to stay at her uncle and aunt’s for the first time. “La/Dy/Da,” an adaption of Henry James’s novel “The Portrait of a Lady,” tracks Isabel’s journey as she is chatted up by one man after another, in her room, on the front lawn, and — plot twist — in a reality TV show called “The Proposal-Off.” They all love her, or so they say. Even her cousin Ralph, played by David Gore ’15, fancies her. Within days of Isabel’s arrival, Ralph’s father dies, and the young successor promptly gives his cousin half of his inheritance. Finally, after many professions of love, the protagonist leaps into the arms of Gilbert Osmond, an American living in Italy, played by Ben Symons ’15,
Rizzolo captures Isabel’s naive exuberance and then transitions convincingly into her dark, postmarital life. Even in silent moments, she engages with the audience by way of her strong gestures and revealing gaze. Symons plays Osmond and the other male suitors with a magician’s skill, changing personality and demeanor on a dime. He expertly incarnates minor characters in quick succession, while also developing the cruel, manipulative character of Osmond. The director, Gabrielle Hoyt-Disick ’15, combines scenes with one central focus and scenes that span all three of the platforms, taking full advantage of the long stage.
After Isabel marries Osmond, the piece takes a turn, moving from optimistic innocence to a darker place. Her chair is her cage; up in the Whitney Theater’s balcony, characters often watch her in groups, disdainfully bringing opera glasses up to their eyes. Rizzolo’s expression changes — there is pain in her eyes, and she seems suddenly older.
“La/Dy/Da” is a blend of the classic and the modern, as well as a devised piece of theater (and Hoyt-Disick and Rizzolo’s senior project). In other words, it’s a collaborative creation, inspired by the ideas of cast and crew alike. Great chunks of James’s text are kept, sometimes rearranged, and nicely combined with fresh material. In one scene, women in blank tank tops and tight yoga pants serenade Isabel to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” In moments, the play is slightly lewd — for example, one character makes indecent jokes about adulterous women. This is a critique, a commentary on the objectification of women.
Osmond’s best weapon is his twisted, devious rhetoric, which shackles Isabel to slavish subservience. Still, Isabel eventually makes her way up to the balcony; however, even there, she cannot escape the theater. In fact, as she reaches the balcony, once a place of power and dominance, the tables turn — her small chair becomes the focal point. Other characters hijack her stool, making it the new seat of authority. Isabel must come to her senses, find her own value and independence, and make the choice that is best for her, even if it falls short of her ideals.