Fringe Review: La Ronde

La Ronde is an canonical theatrical erotic masterpiece written by the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler, author the short novel Traumnovelle that was the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s film EYES WIDE SHUT. Set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century Vienna, the carnal escapades of 10 different lovers are revealed in a bizarre chain of erotic encounters. Voyeur-like, the audience witnesses their primal need for love, passion, and intimacy. Exploring the complexities, infidelities, and eccentricities of the human animal contending with sexual desire, the men and women appear as marionettes engaged in a mad sexual dance. This dance is an unyielding cycle of deceit, longing, and hypocrisy in which all forms of communication have broken down, and the only way to reach another human being is through the common denominator of sexual gratification. In a city with a striking resemblance to modern day Prague, the surfaces were magnificent. The Schonbrunn Palace, the Opera, the Ringstrasse – the mystique of the Hapsburg Empire gleamed with opulence and gold leaf. The cafes were charming, the new wine was refreshing, and the waltzes and military music stirred the blood. If by the turn of the century, the gold leaf was beginning to flake away, no matter. One could still indulge one’s senses with a discrete rendezvous in the Prater or a linzertorte with kaffee mit schlag at Demel’s. 

For many years critics wrongly underestimated the piece, dismissing it as a mere boulevard comedy of more than usual naughtiness; but distance has proved La Ronde to be an important expression of its time and, more frightening an accurate mirror of our own social chaos. The play has an interesting and controversial history:

 Arthur Schnitzler wrote "Der Reigen" (La Ronde) during the winter of 1896-1897 but he did not have it printed until 1900 and then only in a private edition of about 300 copies. When the first published edition appeared in 1903, it was condemned as obscene and banned. At the premiere in Berlin, in 1920, six hundred members of the fledgling Nazi party stormed the theatre not only because of the play’s purported immorality, but also because Schnitzler was Jewish. The manager of the theatre and all of the actors were subsequently taken to trial on charges of public indecency, but the charges were later dismissed. Schnitzler was so upset by the reaction his play had elicited that he banned it from ever being performed in his lifetime. Schnitzler died in 1931, shortly before Hitler came to power.

 The sophisticated perceptions of a scientist and the soul of an artist – these gifts made Schnitzler particularly well suited to diagnose the ills of his society by means of literature. The theme that pervades his work is the problem of communication, whether it is at a social level as expressed in Doctor Bernhardi and Lieutenant Gustl, or at a personal level as expressed in La Ronde and Anatol. This theme, combined with his spare, graceful, psychologically astute style, made him “the poet of loneliness.” Certainly he is a writer for our age, as well as his own.

 But what about this production now? Kompani Krapp from Norway presents a modern day version of La Ronde in English (excellently spoken and articulated). The best thing about the production is stolen straight out of David Hare’s two person adaptation of the play--Blue Room—the addition of timing the sexual encounters between the lovers. In this production, the device is conveyed through a series of interesting short films that both comment on and reveal the absurdity of the action. The second best thing about the production is the elfin DJ constantly spinning and observing the action onstage.

 The performers uniformly are solid and appealing, if somewhat young for some of the roles. The problem is that La Ronde has become so much a part of our vernacular, so much engrained in our modern sensibility that it does not resonate with the depth the original production surely must have produced in sensitive audience members. The production makes nothing of the fact that the play is also a comment on the rampant spread of venereal disease and that we are meant to feel some sympathy that all of the characters will one day succumb to a painful death because of their sexual adventures.

 Only one scene has any modern day relevance—a transformation of the Little Miss character into a modern-day Spanish gigolo played with great specificity and humor by Israel Jesus Elias Corral. Maybe that is the key—perhaps in today’s world where pornography is openly displayed on television, in shops and on street corners, every scene must be updated with HIV-inflected gay, straight, bi-sexual and poly-amorous people—all the scenes transformed into threesomes and other alternative, non-traditional encounters.

If you do not know La Ronde go see the production—it is an important play in the history of theatre, if however you know the play and want to experience the deeply disturbing effect the play must have originally intended, check out In A Thousand Pieces.

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