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Daddy's Girl 

Social panic and sexual fantasies in fin de siècle Vienna

Wednesday, Mar 19 2003
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The set for Fräulein Else, Francesca Faridany's new play based on an Arthur Schnitzler story, is a colorful scramble of inside and outside. A scrim faintly painted with magnificent mountains passes through the forecourt of an alpine hotel. In front of the scrim and the hotel stand some polished furniture and a concierge's desk -- the hotel's insides -- while on the floor, strips of gravel, grass, hardwood, and fine carpet intersect like puzzle pieces. And from the first word of her performance as the titular Fräulein, Faridany herself seems to burst with secret emotion -- the muted cattiness and social panic and wild sexual fantasies of a smart but repressed 19-year-old from fin de siècle Vienna.

Fans of David Hare's The Blue Room or Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut already know that Schnitzler was a contemporary of Freud who wrote racy novels and plays that scandalized proper Germans around the turn of the century and earned him the ire of the Nazis. (Hare and Kubrick based their recent works on Schnitzler's writing.) Schnitzler was a doctor, like Freud, and ran with the same crowd of cafe intellectuals. Freud's emerging notion of the self was finding a literary parallel in Schnitzler's work, and Fräulein Else is a stream-of-consciousness short story from 1924 about a young woman who resembles Freud's most famous patient, Dora.

Else belongs to a middle-class family in reduced circumstances, because of her father's mismanagement. She can still afford to vacation in the Dolomites (a chain of the Italian Alps) and can pass in society as a clever young thing, but her mother sends frightened cables from Vienna saying they'll be ruined if Else can't find a way to borrow a massive sum of cash. An eminent friend of the family, Herr Von Dorsday, happens to be at the spa, and Else's mission (imposed by her mother) is to ask him for a loan.

This odd problem sets off a string of wild notions in Else's hyperactive mind. Will Von Dorsday want sex? Else has never had sex. ("There's my virginal bed," she says in the hotel room.) The gentleman is overdressed, middle-aged, and paternal; he affects a Vandyke beard and a cane. Else finds him insufferable, but wastes no time slipping into a slinky dress. "After dinner I shall act nonchalant," she says. "His eyes will pop out at my cleavage. Hideous man, I hate him, I hate all men."

Sex does cross Von Dorsday's mind, but the brilliance of Fräulein Else (in both Schnitzler's story and Faridany's adaptation) is that we can never tell how much of Else's trouble flows from her own half-understood desires. Faridany plays her as a frantic, bug-eyed girl, swinging her tennis racquet and worrying about the impression she makes, imagining other people's love lives and belittling her own. She indulges mad fantasies of whom she might marry and has melodramatic dreams about how she might die, and Faridany makes these neuroses seem urgent as well as frivolous and charming.

Else might remind people of the play going on next door. Berkeley Rep's production of Suddenly Last Summer is another potent, intermissionless, hour-and-a-half show focused on a young woman trussed by a repressive society. Both plays depend on a tour de force performance from the lead actress, and in the climactic last moment we can't be sure if her character is crazy or sane. Summer, though, needs and has a good supporting cast; Else is Faridany's show. The supporting characters fade into the background like that ghostly mountain scrim: Else's mother, a cousin named Paul, his girlfriend Cissy, the hotel help, and even Herr Von Dorsday (played by a normally vivid Julian López-Morillas) might as well be cutouts from a Heidi coloring book.

With this translation, Faridany set out to give modern audiences the same frisson of scandal and sex that Peggy Ashcroft gave London in 1932 when she starred in an adaptation of Else by her husband, Theodore Komisarjevsky. "The audience had been visibly shocked and captivated by a glimpse of Peggy's naked back," Faridany reports in her program notes, and here she achieves the same shock and captivation in Berkeley by staying true to Schnitzler's story and stripping naked. On opening night a few people audibly gasped, but it's not the first time she's acted so beautifully, with so few clothes, at the Rep. She also turned in a fierce, dishabille performance as Cassandra three years ago in Agamemnon. In both cases she was directed by Stephen Wadsworth, who helped develop Else (and who's now her husband).

This translation is Faridany's first play, and it's a huge accomplishment -- a major new version of Else to replace Komisarjevsky's, which was obscure and uptight anyway. The only quibble I have is with Schnitzler's almost slavish Freudianism. In real life, the young Viennese woman falling under the sexual sway of an older gentleman -- Dora, under Freud -- simply walked away. Else's fate is closer to Freudian scripture. "Leave me alone!" she cries, giving an excuse that sounds quaint and dogmatic when the other hotel guests rush to cover her naked body. "It was only for Father!"

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