By John Quinn
“Sex is natural – sex is fun / Sex is best when it’s one on one.” And who am I to contradict that great philosopher George Michael? Yet there was a time when craving for sex was not mentioned, much less a subject for Billboard’s pop hits. Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler wrote “Reigen” in 1897, published it in 1900 and distributed it among friends and acquaintances with the express warning that it never be performed. The secret lasted all of two decades. When the play actually hit the stage the outcry was so great Schnitzler barely escaped conviction for obscenity. I bet I have your attention now, don’t I?
“Reigen,” better known now in French as “La Ronde,” is telling dirty little secrets at The Abreact Performance Space. Both words refer to a “round dance” in the spirit of “Ring Around the Rosie,” and the concept neatly sums up the fascinating structure of the play. There are 10 dialogues between Man and Woman, one character from the preceding scene going on to the next situation – and sex partner – until the pairings come full circle. Characters move up and down the social ladder in an obsessive search of gratification.
Gratification? Oh yes, this play has sex – loud, boisterous sex chastely covered by blackouts because The Abreact lacks MTV’s infra-red cameras. Our characters will say or do anything to woo a partner into bed, and yet will just as quickly drop them. The play blatantly trumpets the leveling nature of the sex drive, exposing dark motivations and selfish behavior like an unbandaged sore – here, that’s probably syphilis.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Sigmund Freud was a big fan. The Good Doctor wrote that he had “gained the impression that [Schnitzler had] learned through intuition – though actually as a result of sensitive introspection – everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons.” No wonder the “proper” Viennese went nuts; they didn’t want a reminder that deep down, maybe they weren’t so proper after all.
Such an overt treatment of sensitive topics might have been provocative as late as 20 years ago, but it pales in comparison to the vulgarity found in the common culture today. I have just two words: “Jersey Shore.” Our emotions are so anesthetized, “La Ronde” the Play risks coming off as merely a quaint period piece. “La Ronde” the Production is something more.
Alan Batkiewicz’s set is a tattered, shabby construction that nicely echoes the dubious desires and motivations of the characters. The draping actually looks like dirty laundry.
But what really shines here is tight ensemble acting and polished direction. Four actors, Stephen Blackwell, Kirsten Knisely, Caroline Price and Matthew Turner Shelton, portray the cast of thousands (I exaggerate). They show a great deal of comfort with each other, remarkable considering the amount of bed-hopping – and in contrast to the play’s theme of “taking,” there’s a lot of “giving” on stage. In these brief vignettes it’s necessary to establish character and motivation as soon as possible and no one disappoints. If the production is to remain faithful to the theme, it’s important that we recognize social class differences; here British dialects mirror the translation’s distinctively Anglic tone. While occasionally distracting, they serve the purpose. Director Frannie Shepherd-Bates took a risk in dusting off this relic and skillfully returned it to relevance.
If “La Ronde” in 2011 looks as tame as an episode of “Love, American Style” – oh, I can’t believe how I just dated myself – I take comfort in knowing that once upon a time even casual sex had meaning and consequences. “Don’t want my, don’t want my, don’t want my MTV.”
The Abreact Performance Space, 1301 W. Lafayette Ave., #113, Detroit. Friday-Saturday through Feb. 26, plus Sunday, Feb. 20. Admission by donation; cash or check only. 313-285-0217. http://www.theabreact.com