Going Long

Scoping Out the Long Fringe of FronteraFest 2000

La Ronda
La Ronda

La Ronda / The Blue Room

by Arthur Schnitzler/David Hare

The Off Center

Running time: La Ronda -- 1 hr, 45 min; The Blue Room -- 2 hrs, 15 min

The mating dance of a man and a woman ultimately climaxes in a rather familiar set of circumstances, no matter the relative positions of the parties involved. But the courtship rituals that lead to these couplings is all about relative positions. Or rather, one's place in society, personal beliefs, or self-image introduces all sorts of psychological twists and turns that often make the subsequent physical fumblings in the dark seem tepid and banal by comparison. What prompts a man or woman to engage in the hunt? To acquiesce, even in the face of a variety of dangers ranging from a severe blow to one's battered ego to infection with one of the most fearsome diseases that unsafe sex has unleashed?

Swiss playwright Arthur Schnitzler investigated these questions in his infamous-in-its-time play La Ronde, tracing the dalliances, affairs, and liaisons of fin-de-siècle Viennese society through a sequence of scenes wherein a man and woman wind up copulating after some brief dance of courtship. Schnitzler's characters offer a rather complete, and therefore seditious, unveiling of all ranks of Vienna's denizens: from prostitutes to noblemen, servants to the educated middle classes, artists and businessmen, soldiers and students: Birds do it, bees do it, and all the Viennese do it. This landed Schnitzler in jail for a spell, but the playwright didn't so much condemn his assorted charming and chafing fellow citizens as make a statement about the universality of the chase, the capture, and all that messiness that follows. For none of these contests ends happily, it seems. At least one party ends up disappointed: at having given in, in having chased, in the sex itself. Many of Schnitzler's characters do a complete about-face, finally storming, slinking, or fleeing from a room in humiliation, to return to his or her "real" life.

It is this startling series of 180-degree turns that forms the conceptual foundation for Teatro Humanidad's La Ronda, a Latin-inflected version of Schnitzler's play wherein the tango is used as a visual substitute for the act of love. The idea is fascinating, because the tango itself is a courtship dance full of lightning-quick 180-degree turns, stops, and starts. It represents rather well the quirky, staccato, sometimes violent, sometimes beautiful fleshiness of Schnitzler's undressed heroes and heroines. Director Maria Aladren has this play clearly in her directorial sights; the final tableau of all the characters circling about the stage reaching for their intendeds hits the titular metaphor on its circular head.

But the quality of this production doesn't match the directorial vision. Many members of the cast cannot tango with the language skillfully enough to allow these affairs to register as more than caricatures of the real thing. Every moment is supposed to be a struggle for control which turns the characters to and from each other in sharp contrast, but with all battles leading to the climactic fuck in its many forms. It is hard to accept that some of these couples are really destined for the sack when the about-faces don't carry a truthful feeling of appropriate depth.

When it does work, as with Erin Feil and Kregg Foote, who play a tired, young wife and her older, politician husband, we see not only the machinations that lead to the sexual act, but also, in the tango that the pair dances, the true feelings of both. He is blissfully self-absorbed, she could just as well be watching her fingernails dry. Ruperto Reyes, as the egotistical but flaccid Poet, also proves adept at the script's difficult double takes, as well as the flashy, fleshy dance steps. Partnered with Bina Chauban's Sweet Young Thing, who lets him screw her but cannot recall having seen his plays (she'd rather see a comic opera than his overwrought dramas), Reyes is dramatic, petulant, charming, and in charge. Chauban's innocence lost in the previous scene, she matches the self-aggrandizing Poet step for step. When the Poet runs off to the country with the famous Actress (played with ample histrionics by Erica Saenz), he's no longer in charge: She's got him by the short and curlies every which way. When they tango, she leads.

Teatro Humanidad presents La Ronda in repertory with its production of The Blue Room, English playwright David Hare's take on the Schnitzler original. While La Ronda utilizes 10 different actors to portray the 10 different lovers who daisy-chain one to the next in that circular dance, Hare's play uses only two to play them all, further alluding to the sameness of the final act, despite the participants' stations.

Most of the figures are recognizable from the original cast list -- prostitute, maid, actress, playwright, nobleman, politician -- with the more modern cab driver, student, model, and married student serving as adequate substitutes to keep the settings current. Hare hasn't so much retooled this play as simply smoothed out some of those difficult double takes. Not only are the characters readily recognizable from play to play, but so is much of the language. Hare finds much humor in the theatre-bashing characters, the Playwright and the Actress. In the scene between the Actress and the Aristocrat, Hare achieves something almost philosphical about the nature of love.

In contrast to La Ronda, Teatro's mounting of The Blue Room doesn't provide a defining sense of where this play is set: It isn't London, it isn't a Latin country, it isn't the United States. Or maybe it is all of the above, but it's not so important as the interaction of the couples.

Alas, in The Blue Room, as in La Ronda, the earlier scenes lack a certain depth in characterization that allows us to believe that what we are seeing could actually lead the pairs to making love. Not until the Married Student forces her young lover to lie still do the performances begin to gel. Bhagarit Crow's Politician is a Southern Gentleman, or so he sounds. His hypocrisy clashes with his earnestness, and that makes this so much deeper a character than his Cab Driver and Student. When he dons the trappings of the Playwright, Crow wrings some terrific comedy from his pomposity. Amparo Garcia Crow has some fun of her own as the drug-craving Model, although some of the same histrionics of that character find their way into her other portrayals; most of Garcia Crow's characters seem ready to laugh at the men in their lives, or at life itself, which certainly livens up the onstage action but smooths out the variations of class and status.

Rather than tango the sexual interludes, Hare calls for the stage to go dark, while a caption informs the audience of the duration of the sex. Funny at first, the captions here -- actually little video segments -- are spoiled by images showing the kind of sex being enjoyed (or not enjoyed). A flame roars, a toy boat floats on a lake, the screen goes blue. This unnecessary telegraphing spoils the humor of just seeing the time and moving on to the après-sex: the crashing of egos, the skulking, the guilt, the recapitulations, the emptiness that both Hare and Schnitzler capture in so many of their scenes. An emptiness that Garcia Crow and Crow do fill with what are, ultimately, fluid, strong performances. (La Ronda: Feb 3, Thu, 10pm; Feb 5, Sat, 4:30pm; Feb 6, Sun, 1pm; The Blue Room: Feb 4, Fri, 9pm. $10.)

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