Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Sex, Lies, and Videotape: La Ronde in Toronto

Maev Beaty and Mike Ross in Soulpepper's adaptation of La Ronde (All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Dedicated, with love, to the dear memory of David Churchill

Arthur Schnitzler wrote the play known as La Ronde in 1897 but it would be many years before it was staged, and even then it was considered a scandal. Originally written in German under the tile Reigen, a word like the French La Ronde meaning a dance in the round, it concerns 10 characters engaged in 10 distinct but intertwined acts of erotic coupling. In 1900, Schnitzler printed it as a text for friends and close associates, aware that his subject matter was risqué for the time. In 1903, it was printed for general circulation but was banned for the first time by censors a year later. The play wasn’t strictly about sex, but about how sex cut across social barriers, linking people from different backgrounds. The setting was fin-de-siècle Vienna and while affairs among members of the various social strata took place, the citizenry didn’t want this open secret openly aired.

In December 1920, a brave staging of the play took place in Germany followed by another, in February 1921, in Vienna. Both events were greeted by near universal outrage. The play sparked near riots in the theatres where they were staged. The attacks escalated into virulent anti-Semitism targeted at Schnitzler who was publicly denounced as a Jewish pornographer who later went to court to defend himself against charges of immorality. He eventually withdrew the play from the public.

Brandon McGibbon, Grace Lynn Kung & Mike Ross
In 1982, 40 years after the playwright’s death, his son Heinrich permitted the play to be staged again in Germany, and from there the floodgates opened. Today, there are many versions and adaptations of the play, including movies and at least one known ballet (by choreographer Glen Tetley) based directly on the original Schnitzler text. There are gay interpretations, as well as others that, while maintaining the play’s original heterosexual bent, transpose the setting to modern times. The challenge then becomes how to make the subject of sex among multiple partners, a fact of life made common in the era of the Birth Control Pill that it no longer raises eyebrows, feel as subversive as it did back in Schnitzler’s day.

One way is to have some of the characters actually not have sex at all, but to experience it vicariously through hearsay and the Internet along with the audience. This is what Canadian playwright Jason Sherman has proposed for his adaptation of La Ronde which Toronto’s Soulpepper theatre company is performing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District until the end of April.

Actually adaptation might not be the right word. Sherman’s La Ronde, directed with flourish and a firm sense (pun intended) of control by Alan Dilworth, is something of a new play, set not in long ago Vienna but in present day Toronto, and employing contemporary vernaculars in exploring all facets of what passes for sex in a porn-saturated society. Intimate encounters are called hook-ups, as in something technical, devoid almost completely of love. Sometimes the sex as depicted in Sherman’s play doesn’t even involve human contact. Semen-filled syringes replace sexual organs in one notable scene while in another the sex being depicted is heard, not seen, through a laptop amplification of a horrific rape whose sinister details are vaguely recounted by a fully-clothed war victim recalling atrocities committed against her by Peacekeepers (presumably Canadian) left to guard her in war-torn Congo. Equally as disturbing, at least to virgin ears, is another character’s recounting of what he observed in a downtown sex club where he saw all manner of physical abuse and degrading behaviour performed among consenting adults. The lurid descriptions leave little to the imagination. This is sex as a base if not depraved act in which people suffer real pain as well as a real loss of self. To each his (or her) own, it could be said. Except Sherman hasn’t allowed the speaker any pleasure in the telling nor the listener (namely the audience) any chance to imagine what is being said as anything other than terrible and cruel. It’s a definite accomplishment on his part and there are at least two reactions.

One, Sherman very vividly creates an atmosphere within the theatre that feels electric with shock. In this way, he very ably approximates an original experience of Schnitzler’s play, as something wild and queasily wonderful. For this reason, Sherman is to be roundly applauded for creating a contemporary dance in the round that is dizzying and at times sickening, while also managing to be impishly humourous and clever in its handling of the play’s implied subtext of sexually transmitted disease.

Leah Doz and Stuart Hughes
Two, by closing the door, so to speak, on sex as an enjoyable experience, Sherman often shuts down intimacy completely, including between especially player and spectator. There’s a tendency in Sherman’s rewriting of the text for great ejaculatory speeches to spill forth in which the characters, instead of having sex, talk way too much about it, their words mounting into speeches tirelessly hitting on hot button issues of the day, from Third World adoptions and prostitution rings to investor fraud and the widening gulf between haves and have nots. La Ronde, when regurgitating the day’s headlines, loses its subversive power, its ability to shock, threatening to become – dare we say it? – boring.

But beyond these lapses into political correctness La Ronde as performed by Soulpepper is generally explosive stuff. Certainly the acting is both brave and visceral. The players, when not nude, are seen masturbating and puking. They say outrageous things to each other in the name of sexual pleasure and skillfully hide their emotions behind a pretense of intellectual control. Some of it is quite chilling to observe. There are 10 actors and actresses, each of them potently present even when depicting impotency and a yawning sense of human failure. They are (and excuse the laundry list but the point is to give each his or her due): Maev Beaty, Leah Doz, Miranda Edwards, Stuart Hughes, Grace Lynn Kung, Brandon McGibbon, Adrian Morningstar, Brenda Robins, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Mike Ross.

There is another person to be singled out in this production and he is set, costume and video designer Lorenzo Savoini. His deceptively simple set consists of a white room in which moveable daybeds and chairs are quickly and easily transformed into props serving any number of sexual scenarios, including a downtown massage parlour, a marital bedroom in Toronto’s Annex, a study in a Rosedale mansion, a bucolic sex therapy clinic and a throbbing (no pun intended) nightclub in the city’s Entertainment District. The set also has moveable walls. When a threesome suffers a full-on recognition of moral vacuity, the walls shift and crack open, almost with a clap of thunder, allowing in a sharp slant of Kimberly Purtell‘s lighting design. That light seems to hold them there for a moment, exposing them as more naked than they already are. Shorn of friends, lovers and a sense of belonging, they stand alone. Their sex is empty. It doesn’t break down social barriers as it might have done in Schnitzler’s day. It builds walls, keeping people increasingly isolated from a sense of community. Together but alone. Seed spilled in vain. 

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out for more book updates. On April 17th at 7pm, Deirdre will be appearing in co
nversation with former National Ballet ballerina Ronda Nychka, at Indigo Manulife Centre.

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