Review: ‘La Ronde’ at Cutting Ball Theater (**1/2)

by Charles Kruger

(L to R) Ella Ruth Francis and Jeunée Simon in Cutting Ball’s production of Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde.” Photo Credit: Cheshire Isaacs
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Cutting Ball Theater is known for its commitment to the avante garde, both past and present. While often presenting new plays (the current avante garde), the company also specializes in revivals of plays that were avante garde in their own day, reinterpreting them for our time. It is an approach that has rightly won this theatre a national reputation for work that is exciting, original, and often incredibly challenging.

Arthur Schnitzler’s “Reigen” was certainly avante garde when it first appeared, in a privately circulated edition, in 1900. So much so, that it did not premiere publically until 1920 in Berlin, where it was immediately attacked as pornographic. It reappeared a year later in Vienna as “La Ronde.” Again, it was attacked, but it was also admired. Sigmund Freud famously wrote to Schnitzler, “you have learned through intuition—though actually as a result of sensitive introspection—everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons.”

It was decades before it became clear that “La Ronde” was a classic. Although Schnitzler himself banned its public performance in Austria and Germany, it became very popular in France, as Schnitzler turned over the rights to the French version to his translator.  In 1964, it became a highly successful film which, even then, was at first banned in the U.S. for obscenity before winning an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

The play is structured like a musical canon: a single theme is repeated and overlapped with variations. Ten characters, five men and five women, represent a wide swathe of society. They are nameless except for descriptive titles, such as “The Prostitute,” “The Young Master,” “The Actress,” “The Count,” “The Chambermaid,” etc. In a series of scenes, the men and women come together and break apart in various combinations for sexual trysts. There is no other plot.

In its many revivals, “La Ronde” has been moved to various cities, the characters have received different names in different decades, and it has been played both for shock value and for laughs (sometimes simultaneously). Its clear-eyed honesty in depicting sexual encounters and class relations still startles.

Every production of “La Ronde” that I have been able to uncover follows the author’s direction that it be played by ten actors. Much of the charm of the play is in seeing these actors over and over again in different combinations.

With this production, Ariel Craft, Cutting Ball’s new artistic director, makes a dramatic departure, using only two women to portray all ten characters, both male and female. Her intent, I think, is to strip the play of its surface charm, and reduce it to its most brutal point: that sex partners are rarely, if ever, equal, due to the complications of gender and class, and women, in particular, too often wind up diminished. It seems that, in Ms. Craft’s view, the play as traditionally performed is inadequate for present day audiences. In a program note, she states: “. . . when we tell stories about sex, especially ones penned a century ago, these also have to be stories of gender and inequity.”

While Craft’s approach is intellectually interesting and carefully executed, it seems to me that she has wrenched “La Ronde” so far from the author’s original intent that it is an altogether different play. And it appears that the two actors have been coached to actively avoid a naturalistic approach to their characterizations. The types that Schindler intended are no longer evident: “the wife” is no different than “the chambermaid” or “the whore,” and “the poet” no different than “the soldier.” I suspect the idea was to demonstrate that the various differences of class and personality are rendered meaningless by the politics of sex and gender—where power is unequal and exploitative there can be no charm, no real love, just mechanical coupling.

Consistent with this approach, the two actors adopt a declamatory style and avoid forming empathic bonds with one another: it is all alienating. In Schnitzler’s vision of the play, I believe, the couples were intended to be charming, engaged in a seductive dance with one another. Playing against that, through repetition (like a sung round) he undermines any apparently authentic emotion and reveals the hard facts of sexual exploitation. But an “alienation effect” is only effective if there is something to be alienated from: if there is no authenticity to be undermined, everything seems merely harsh, distant, and repetitive. Which is how I experienced this production.

I commend the director for developing a clear vision and seeing it through with care and intelligence; within the confines of that vision the actors perform capably.

However, for this reviewer, the vision simply did not fit the play, and left me cold and unmoved.

“La Ronde” continues at Cutting Ball Theater through April 14, 2019. For further information, click here.

Rating: **1/2 (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“La Ronde” by Arthur Schnitzler, tranlated by Eric Bentley. Directed by Ariel  Craft. Costume Designer: Morgan May Louise. Lighting Designer: Caie Barnes. Sound Designer: Jamees Ard. Intimacy Choreographer: Maya Herbsman. 



Ensemble: Ella Ruth Francis and Jeunée Simone.

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