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Making the Rounds 

A racy sex farce gets a hot-and-cold treatment

Wednesday, Feb 21 2001
Squirreled away in the old Sears building on Cesar Chavez is a new black box, Studio 210, where a troupe called Goat Island has mounted Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde. You might remember Schnitzler as the Austrian author of the novel Traumnovelle, from which Stanley Kubrick borrowed to make Eyes Wide Shut. La Ronde was also David Hare's starting point for the play The Blue Room. Hare's and Kubrick's adaptations both starred Nicole Kidman, which makes Arthur Schnitzler indirectly responsible for most of what we know about her naked body.

La Ronde is a racy satire on sex and class in fin de siècle Vienna. The title means two things: "merry-go-round" and "roundelay" (a song that keeps returning to a simple refrain). The play starts with a whore seducing a soldier on a quay of the Danube and ends with the same whore in a brothel with a count. In between comes a daisy chain of class-blind sex: a parlor maid who sleeps with her bachelor boss who sleeps with a rich married woman who sleeps with her husband, and so on. Schnitzler finished the play in 1898 but considered it too scandalous to stage; it led a sort of samizdat life until 1921, when a Vienna theater premiered it over anti-Semitic protests. "Since neither Jewish nor decadent literary work is suited to the recovering healthfulness of the German people," wrote the Nazis' Völkische Beobachter 10 years later, "Schnitzler's name will soon be forgotten."

(Refuting Nazis is so much fun.)

La Ronde's quiet humor lies in the juxtaposition of various classes fucking. The Soldier and Prostitute finish in a couple of minutes. The Soldier and Parlor Maid, too. The Parlor Maid and her boss have more trouble, since the boss needs to maintain a semblance of bourgeois propriety. And when the boss' married lover arrives in a carriage, wearing a long robe, a silk hand-warmer, a ridiculous hat, and two veils -- looking so Victorian she could be Muslim -- the act itself almost doesn't happen. The Blue Room turned this running joke into a sight gag by projecting the length of each coupling onto a wall, but that completely misses the point, since La Ronde is about tedious or funny social foreplay and not performance in bed. (It could also be about syphilis, but Schnitzler doesn't touch that question.)

Goat Island's patchy production misses a few nuances. Somehow it's not clear that the married woman has on two veils to avoid being recognized in the street -- the effect, when she arrives, is simply that she's from Mars. When the Poet seducing the Sweet Young Thing denies that he writes famous plays, we can't see why he would lie (a whim; he does write famous plays), so we believe him. The whole production suffers from a lack of energy that keeps its elements from fusing. Still, several scenes are funny. Donna Trousdale plays a quietly lusty Parlor Maid, flirting in the dead stillness of a living room with the bach- elor Young Gentleman; Nick Sholley also does a strong, quietly comic turn as the gentleman. Katarina Fabic is a beautifully sultry Prostitute, and Daria Hepps (who also directs) enlivens the show as the double-veiled, sharp-tongued, neurotic young married woman trying not to have an affair.

Christine U'Ren's excellent costumes are a frilly and silky assemblage of corsets, lace, silly pajamas, and rows of buttons and hooks. Patrick Bay's hats -- the show has a milliner -- would shame the mayor. Dolan Cleverley's versatile and colorful set evokes Vienna in 1900 without belonging to it; the furniture has swooping art nouveau shapes but strong Haring-style colors and outlines. The props have all the bright, farcical energy that certain performances miss. When Gene Mocsy, as a ridiculously stiff Count, sits with his plumed helmet and saber next to an Actress (the impressively temperamental Candice Milan), who writhes in bed like a serpent, he does need to be formal and prim, but he shouldn't lack humanity. The Actress calls the Count a "poseur" for holding out. "The truth is," he tells her, "I find love in the morning rather ghastly. ... Women like you are not to be had before breakfast." How do you go wrong with that line? But Mocsy reads it with no style.

Mocsy and other members of the cast, like Hepps, mounted The Sneeze almost two years ago -- a collection of Chekhov's short, funny plays -- with similar hot-and-cold results. Some good farcical acting, some bad. At the time I said the show was like a museum exhibit, and I'm tempted to repeat myself. La Ronde is marvelous historical material, interesting and funny, full of dirty anthropological details about Old World sexual manners -- but sometimes it just sits there, on display.


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