Dog & Pony Show, which is best known in the Triangle for its wonderfully wicked ongoing series of PEEP!!! vaudeville and burlesque revues, will shift gears this week to tackle the world-famous Viennese sex comedy La Ronde by Austrian playwright and novelist Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), who specialized in psychological dramas and merciless dissections of bourgeois life in turn-of-the-century Vienna.
Written as Reigen (Merry-Go-Round) in 1897 and set in Vienna in the 1890s, this effervescent comedy consists of 10 dramatic dialogues during which the play's 10 characters casually meet and mate and demonstrate how selfish and heartless men and women can be when gripped by uncontrollable lust. Too scandalous to be performed on the public stage until 1920, this no-holds-barred comedy of (good, bad, and very, very bad) manners gained an international audience when French director Max Ophüls filmed it and redubbed it La Ronde in 1950.
In 1998, British playwright/screenwriter David Hare (Plenty) updated Schnitzler's script. One critic described the Broadway production of Hare's play The Blue Room, in which red-haired Australian temptress Nicole Kidman (then Mrs. Tom Cruise) bared all, as "theatrical Viagra."
Will Dog & Pony Show's production of La Ronde be theatrical Viagra for Triangle audiences? "I would say there are portions of this show which are theatrical Viagra," quips company founder and artistic director Lissa Brennan, "but there are also segments which are theatrical saltpeter."
Brennan notes that Schnitzler's vivacious comedy played a key role in her own development as an actress. "I acted in a production of La Ronde at the New Group Theater in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1988," she says. "It was the second play I ever did, and the first in which I actually got to speak."
Her fondness for La Ronde continues to this day. "I like the affection Schnitzler shows his characters, even when gently mocking them," Brennan confides. "I saw [La Ronde] as a directing challenge — making 10 scenes, which are essentially the same in terms of plot and structure, different from each other." Non-traditional casting of some roles ups the degree of difficulty.
Brennan adds, "We started with the Eric Bentley translation, which was the best one we could find but still somewhat stilted, and I adapted from there."
The plot of La Ronde, Brennan says, is simple — and circular:
"Scene 1: A prostitute (Lissa Brennan) meets a soldier (Derrick Ivey) under a bridge late and night. They tryst.
"Scene 2: The soldier leads a parlor maid (Meredith Sause) out of a dancehall. They tryst.
"Scene 3: The parlor maid is summoned by the young master of the house (Wade F. Dansby 3). They tryst.
"Scene 4: The young master of the house welcomes a society wife (Deborah Winstead) to his rented rooms. They tryst.
"Scene 5: The society wife takes the lead with her husband (Derrick Ivey.) They tryst.
"Scene 6: The husband brings a sweet young thing (Meredith Sause) to a private dining room. They tryst.
"Scene 7: The sweet young thing visits the home of a poet (Lissa Brennan) They tryst.
"Scene 8: The poet checks into a county inn with an actress (Deborah Winstead). They tryst.
"Scene 9: The actress is attended by a Count (Wade Dansby). They tryst.
"Scene 10: The count wakes up beneath a familiar bridge next to a familiar body."
Brennan confesses, "With this kind of comedy, it would be easy to descend into farce. The actors are required to play in style while not going too far over the top, allowing the audience to identify and empathize with them, but still giving them room to laugh at the situations."
When queried about the production's set, lighting, and costumes, Lissa Brennan quips, "There is some furniture.… [The lighting] allows the audience to see the actors.… No one is nude."
This is a "PG-13 version" of La Ronde, Brennan emphasizes. "A few years back," Brennan says, "Nicole Kidman appeared nude on Broadway in The Blue Room, a rather depressing and pessimistic update of this play. We've no nudity, and are sticking to Schnitzler's original, a sparkling, witty example of the best of Viennese comedy."
Dog & Pony Show presents La Ronde Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 14-16, at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 17, at 3:15 p.m.; and Wednesday-Saturday, Nov. 20-23, at 8:15 p.m. in Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham, NC. $12, with Manbites Dog 2002-2003 season vouchers and gift certificates valid for all performances. 919/682-3343. http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/2/.