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Monday, June 04, 2018

Running a Round: La Ronde

IMMERSIVE THEATER has become the rage, which angers a theater-going friend. “I go to plays to be entertained,” he grouses. “Why can’t they do O’Neill? Or ‘Macbeth’?”

Fisch and Botwick in "La Ronde"
Troy Foundry Theatre closes its inaugural season with an immersive “La Ronde,” the Arthur Schnitzler play so controversial when it was published in Germany at the turn of the last century that it was banned by censors and not performed until 1920. The play’s no-holds-barred depictions of freewheeling sexual affairs invited equal measures of scandal and acclaim, but it’s at heart a look at the contrasting, though often similar, mores of a rigidly class-structured society. (Schnitzler probably is better known these days as the author of “Traumnovelle,” which inspired Stanley Kubrick’s final film, “Eyes Wide Shut.”)

So what if, instead of watching the ten short encounters of “La Ronde” in sequence on a single stage, they were take place simultaneously in a number of rooms (and a staircase)? This is the conceit of director Brenna Geffers’s production for Troy Foundry Theatre, and it’s set in the lovely old Frear House, part of the Russell Sage College campus.

Right away, we’re trading away the linearity of the original. What you’re inclined to miss, then, is Schnitzler’s commentary on the social structure of fin de siècle Vienna. Starting with an encounter (and all of these encounters include sexual encounters) between a prostitute and a soldier, we follow the soldier to his seduction of a parlor maid, the maid to a fraught confrontation with a Young Gentleman, and so on, gathering a parlous married couple, a poet, and a distinguished count along the way.

What we get instead is a burning intimacy. There’s no remove – the actors are right there with you. You may be there for the start of a scene; you might stroll in to see some heavy (quite heavy) petting. Rooms on the first and second floor of this grand old manse have been designated variously as the Poet’s Apartment, the Count’s House, the Actress’s Suite, the Private Dining Room, among others, yet they share a grand anonymity, the most compelling decorative item in each a large mirror, which adds to the fun.

Because when you remove the proscenium, you’re part of the action. And when the action is so intimate, you develop an emotional involvement that is at once embarrassing and painful. I witnessed live sex shows in Times Square porn emporia in the 1970s that were far less engaging than the simulated conjunctions offered here. The actors made effective use of the abundant mirrors, but the face I avoided was my own so as not to increase the inadvertent guilt that welled.

Audience members – only 50 are welcomed each performance – are assigned a start-off room and given a few sensible rules (such as not touching the actors). I was started in the Actress’s Room, thus audience to the play’s penultimate scene, wherein the Count (John Romeo, with impressive imperiousness) keeps an assignation with the Actress (Ethan Botwick, with impressive gender fluidity). Their tryst is brief and unpleasant, quite unlike the original script, but more compelling as a stand-alone moment.

Geffers originally devised this approach to the work for a Philadelphia production, and three of the cast members hail from that city: Anthony Crosby as the Young Gentleman; Colleen Corcoran as Emma, the Wife, and Ross Beschler as the Husband. I was able to see complete scenes with each and their talent was impressive, especially given what has to be the distracting nature of their surroundings.

But they were matched by the talent that’s closer to home. In addition to Romeo and Botwick, there were compelling performances by Emily Curro, as a Maid (whose encounter with Crosby is more savage than in the original); Jacob Morgan Fisch, a delightful and devious Soldier; Raya Malcolm, wiser than first seems as the Sweet Miss; Amy Kirkpatrick Rosen, as the lascivious Poet (is there any other kind?); and Caroline Whelehan looking unutterably beautiful as the Whore, whose brief time in that business has provoked a credible world-weariness.

Five scenes are running concurrently at any given time, alternating with the other five; choosing to follow one of the characters, as is urged in the instructions, will take you through the lion’s share of the scenes, but it becomes a little wearying both in the sometimes confusing travel it entails and having to share this experience with your fellow voyeurs, who seemed less unsettled by some of this than I was.

But it’s a bravura production nevertheless, the kind of thing that shakes up every set notion we may have about what makes good theater. Schnitzler’s insights into human sexual relations have contemporary currency (in his time, he was praised by Freud), and this kind of re-setting only underscores that. I’ve been involved in previous Troy Foundry Theatre work, and know many of the people involved, so it’s as much a relief as it is a joy to be able to celebrate work like this.

Performances continue at 8 PM Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, June 7-9, at Frear House, 113 2nd St., Troy, NY, and you can buy your tickets here.

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