Two young Triangle companies are presenting concurrent productions of classic treatises on the theme of love, but the plays themselves couldn't be further apart in style, content, or approach. The first is an 18th century comedy of acute social embarrassment in the form of a masked revel. The second, a fiercely modern roundelay whose preoccupation with sexual congress masks its true subject: the natural state of homo sapiens and the essence of theatre — indeed, the only thing worth dramatizing — the human heart in conflict with itself.
Dog & Pony Show, meanwhile, is engaged with Arthur Schnitzler's trail-blazing La Ronde at Manbites Dog Theatre.
This ribald, influential comedy of manners consists of a round of trysts, in which a partner in one continues his or her amorous adventures with a third character in the next and so on, eventually coming around to the first lover's encounter with the 10th. So scandalous that it could not receive a production at the time of its completion, La Ronde has inspired any number of dramatic variations, from Marcel Ophuls' popular 1950 film to John Michael LaChuisa's brilliant 1994 chamber musical Hello Again.
Within its nine connected scenes, Schnitzler anatomizes physical desire and engages the spectator in a series of spirited colloquies on the very nature of love. Some are comic, some bittersweet, some mordant, but all in one fashion or another illuminate the circuitous means by which human beings negotiate the mine-strewn landscape of personal interaction. That his characters ultimately remain alone and unfulfilled gives Schnitzler's work relevance far beyond the fin-de-siecle Vienna of its birth.
Lissa Brennan's production of this circular series of erotic vignettes is exquisitely frustrating. While disarmingly frank, this production is, ironically, far less coarse and vulgar than what's on display at Deep Dish. Brennan's inspired direction is complimented by the damn near perfect playing of three actresses (including the director) in six roles, and neatly torpedoed by their male opposites.
Derrick Ivey begins so promisingly as a randy, drunken soldier that his subsequent descent to prissy, squealing caricature as a hypocritical husband is as dismayingly amateurish as it is annoying. Wade F. Dansby 3 is no better at playing an old roué than he is as a sexually — and emotionally immature — young student. For the first he merely squeals, and for the second, poses.
These masculine failures only serve to make the feminine successes all the more astonishing; if these women are this good with no support, imagine what heights they might attain playing with better actors. Lissa Brennan's raucous, drunken whore is amusingly pitiable, bested only by her equally arresting portrayal of a pretentious poet. Brennan's channeling of Marlene Dietrich (or is it Madeline Kahn as Dietrich?) at first seems a mere trick, but the changes she rings from this persona are astonishingly real: toying with a young woman in one scene, being expertly toyed with by a much older one in the next. Equally treasurable is the way she reacts to a bout of Lesbian sex with the observation, "That was BWISS!"
(As no playwright — not even Schnitzler! — is credited in the program, I don't know whether this interpolation of Sapphic desire is the notion of translator, or director. But it works so well one can only wish a similar sex change had been wrought for a couple of the male characters. Then again, with Ivey and Dansby the only men on hand, perhaps it's just as well.)
Two superb performers complement Brennan's artistry. As a nervous matron and a blasé actress, Deborah Winstead is sublime. In the first, she shimmies and runs her hands down her body with erotic need even while bemoaning her own "scandalous" behavior. In the second, she's an emotional assassin so bored by the sins her flesh is heir to that she must annihilate her lovers with malicious invective, if only to relieve the emptiness of her rarified existence.
The evening's crowing glory, however, is Meredith Sause as a slightly sadistic maid and a rapacious innocent. In the first role, she is at once deadpan and wryly kinky, while in the second, she's marvelously guileless even as she's blithely slipping first an ashtray, then an entire place setting into her handbag. Sause's performance is a marvel of timing, inflection, comic assurance, and tender feeling. Her long restaurant scene is breathtakingly hilarious in its sustained gastronomic concentration.
No costumer is credited, but the largely black and white motif is cleverly exploded now and again through bursts of vivid color, such as the Actress's leopard skin and gold lame purse and the Poet's impish red pantsuit and beret. Throughout, Brennan's sense of pace and invention seldom flag. If her La Ronde misses being the triumph it could be, this is due less to directorial skill than to questionable casting.
Dog & Pony Show presents La Ronde 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/.