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Review: James Kudelka engrossingly captures desolation of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth

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Choreographer James Kudelka has, with the help of Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie, composer Rodney Sharman, librettist Alex Poch-Goldin and some very capable singers and musicians, captured the heart-wrenching desolation found at the heart of Edith Wharton’s 1905 social drama, The House of Mirth.

Rendering the gist of a long novel in an hour-long show is a feat in itself. Doing so using unconventional storytelling is even more remarkable.

The work, premiered on Wednesday, and which I saw on Thursday afternoon, is a seamless fusion of dance and opera that, in its very structure mirrors the place of a woman in pre-suffragette New York society: The men are given words to sing, while the women turn and twirl and occasionally simper in silence — save for the distinctive rustle of their period silk taffeta dresses.

The House of Mirth tells the tragic tale of Lily Bart, born into high society, but hobbled by a lack of money and impeded by a free spirit that spurs her to make a series of wrong decisions. These lead to ostracism, poverty and a lonely death that steals her last shred of dignity.

Laurence Lemieux masterfully captures every nuance of that journey with heart-rending dignity.

In one breakout solo scene, which I think is meant to evoke Lily’s participation in a racy tableau vivant, Kudelka has Lemieux channel the spirit of Isadora Duncan. Stripped of her restrictive layers of clothing, Lily allows her whole body to become an eloquent plea for the freedom to do what she pleases.

The other women, Claudia Moore, Christianne Ullmark and Victoria Bertram (one of the great principal dancers of the National Ballet in the 1980s) make for a superb, silent, dancing chorus.

The show features four of the finest younger Toronto male singers — countertenor Scott Belluz, tenor Graham Thomson and bass-baritones Alexander Dobson and Geoffrey Sirett — who sing Sharman’s fascinating score with ease, while serving as capable dance partners for the women.

The story has them singing as a chorus, as well as giving each character solo work to do.

Sharman successfully walks a difficult, treacherous line between tonality and atonality, lacing the score with leitmotifs that help bring together the story and the music. It is effectively scored for violin (Parmela Attariwala), cello (Carina Reeves), harp (Sanya Eng), harmonium (Kathryn Tremills) and piano (John Hess, who also acts as music director).

Poch-Goldin’s libretto, which veers from suggestive to explicit, may be the weakest link in this exceptional show, but it will only be a problem for someone who is not at all familiar with Wharton’s novel.

This production’s designers — David Gaucher and the boys of Haux Couture —  prove, yet again, that only the barest of structures, in this case, the metal frame of a gazebo, a chandelier, two pieces of drapery and strong costumes are all one needs to to effectively set the mood.

This is such a wonderful, innovative show that it’s a tragedy that Coleman Lemieux’s new digs, The Citadel, on Parliament St. can only seat 60 people. Most of the shows, which run to Sunday, are already sold out. Dozens of people were turned away at the door ahead of today’s matinee.

I asked at the reception desk if there was a possibility that the show could be extended. The response was that the company has talked about it, but that it doesn’t seem possible right now.

So, if you want to see The House of Mirth, act quickly — or book yourself a trip to Edith Wharton’s house, The Mount, in the Berkshires, where Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie will help celebrate the 150th anniversary of Wharton’s birth, this summer.

For all the necessary information, click here.

This is a trailer for the show:

John Terauds

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