[NOTE: Both this play and the following review contain descriptions of sexual assault and questionable consent.]
“All of us have got some kinds of feelings and thoughts about sex, but the only genre connected to it is this grubby, shameful one [pornography]. That’s a real pity. Sex is glorious, it’s how we all got here, and it’s most people’s favourite activity”
– Alan Moore, “Alan Moore: The reluctant hero”, The Independent (15 March 2004)
Y’think maybe Arthur Schnitzler had a thing about sex? Just a casual glance over his collection – plays, novels, short stories – reveals a recurring theme of affairs, impotence, and other forms of sexual self-awareness (or lack thereof). Hell, the film adaptation of his novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story) (Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut) was a flick so sexually charged they had to add CGI stand-ins to cover up the on-screen naughtiness in the US.
Yeah, it’s safe to say that sex was one of Schnitzler’s two most recurring themes. The other was Jewish identity (notably excised from Eyes Wide Shut by supposed-self-hating-Jew Kubrick). The latter doesn’t factor into La Ronde, but I can’t help but think of the Jewish tales of Lilith – supposedly Adam’s first wife who demanded equal recognition and refused to do missionary.
And you can’t really blame Schnitzler. After all, what men don’t do during sex they often do in the hopes of getting more sex – both of which often involve disregarding the feelings of women. There’s an old quote often attributed to Oscar Wilde, though no one has ever confirmed it: “Everything in human life is really about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” Apparently, that line of thought goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
You can’t avoid discussions of sexual power dynamics these days, not when an alleged sex criminal sits in the Oval Office and his choice of Supreme Court wins his seat in spite damning testimony from a victim. Both “sexual agency” and “rape culture” have become mainstream terms, and rightfully so. They’re two sides of the same topic that has been on everyone’s minds since the dawn of humanity. The only difference between now and then is that Schnitzler’s era didn’t have names for what they saw clearly.
I’ll forego my usual plot synopsis, seeing as how the “story” is just a series of interconnected vignettes. It’s like Richard Linklater’s Slacker, except everyone fucks as much as they talk. In fact, everything they talk about relates to fucking in one way or another. The only actual recurring character is the one known derisively as “The Whore” (her actual name is “Leocadia”), whose two appearances bookend the scenes.
Each scene begins with the two characters – one played by Jeunée Simon, the other by Ella Ruth Francis – having a verbal back-and-forth before copulating, chatting again, and separating. The next scene then begins with one returning character from the previous scene (always played by Simon) meeting the new character (Francis) and going through the motions again. The characters all run the gamut from mousey to narcissistic, military to artistic, blasé of the concerns of their partner to violently jealous. Every encounter is a power play, though not everyone is aware of it.
And no character acts the same way with any two partners. This makes the use of only two actors for ten characters a nicely streamlined touch under Ariel Craft’s direction. Not only is everyone easy to tell apart – we also get help from pre-scene titles identifying each character – but it makes narrative sense, as no one is “the same person” with any two acquaintances. (Cutting Ball tried something similar with three actors in their 2010 production of The Tempest. Though blessed with a talented cast – particularly Caitlyn Louchard – it was difficult to tell who was whom without a working knowledge of Shakespeare’s text.) However, I wasn’t sold on the over-the-top performances throughout. There are some points where it works (the Poet is perfectly pretentious), but other times not (the Maid in the third sequence is played as coquettish, but the text sounds as if she’s genuinely reluctant).
Still, Craft and her cast clearly enjoy literally trying on various personae as if they were trying on clothes. What’s more, the aforementioned power plays take on new subtext when both actor and character have a changed dynamic from the scene prior. For instance, Simon (with whom I’ve worked before) begins one scene as a wife who craves more from a husband who thinks his mere presence is doing her a favor. Simon becomes that husband in the next scene, in which his terrifying jealousy is revealed as he drugs and rapes an (underage?) young woman – forcing onto her the control he could feel himself losing from his wife. Francis (whom I believe I last saw in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of Grease) is at her best when playing the characters most dismissive of their partners’ feelings, such as the self-important Poet, and then the Actress whom the Poet apotheosizes. Great transitioning on the part of both.
Craft and scenic designer Randy Wong-Westbrooke also clearly enjoy the Cutting Ball tradition of making the stage, well, anything but traditional. This one is divided into audience seats at four corners, as the “stage” is the off-balance “square” shape in the middle. Several of Adeline Smith’s props – tea kettles, cups, candles, pocketbooks, chairs – hang from the empty walls alongside Morgan Louie’s costumes, all of which have a torn and tattered look to them. (Schnitzler by way of Mad Max? Interesting.) Cassie Barnes’ light are most noticeable when projecting the names of the characters at the top of each scene, but James Ard’s sounds (gulls, crowds in the next room, etc.) were subtly noticeable in the best way.
And given the show’s content, a special shout-out has to go the production’s intimacy choreographer, Maya Herbsman. It’s the sort of position show business should have had long ago, but everyone felt it either unnecessary or too touchy a subject to discuss openly. (That’s how you get things like the infamous Last Tango in Paris incident.) The role serves a practical purpose, in that it extends the director’s role of building actor chemistry. Its more obvious function is to bring both a sense of realism to the play’s more intimate moments whilst keeping the actors’ comfort the main priority. This show not only proves why such a position is necessary, but uses it to erotic, terrifying, and even hilarious ends.
Thinking back on this show, I’m reminded of that old Sex Ed. saying: “When you have sex with someone, you are having sex with everyone they have had sex with.” Today, that quote is often exploited by pro-abstinence groups who drops their monocles at the mere thought of anyone having sex outside of marriage. That, of course, hasn’t stopped people from having sex inside, outside, or fully absent of marriage. What’s changed is that not only is everyone involved allowed to speak their mind, they’re encouraged to do so.
Having seen this production so soon after Aurora’s excellent production of Actually, the parallels between the two are impossible to ignore – thanks, in no short part, to both productions having only two cast members: one White, one Black. Ideas of consent and personal pleasure that should have been archaic in Schnitzler’s day are even more important in the #MeToo era. La Ronde isn’t a perfect show, but it puts the conversation of sex in the hands of the one group so often dismissed for their opinions on the matter: women. It would be shame if things hadn’t changed another hundred years from now.
La Ronde is scheduled to run until the 14th of April at the EXIT on Taylor in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 1 hr. 45min. with no intermission.
[NOTE: This play contains a scene of sexual assault and several scenes of questionable consent.]
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.