Despite the 1900 Vienna setting of Arthur Schnitzler’s century-old La Ronde, the play’s sexually frank subject matter easily connects with a contemporary audience. Infidelity, assault, one-night stands, manipulation, prostitution — stripped of nearly all other context, the human race was and is fairly teeming with dirty, dirty sex fiends. The strength of the production at the Abreact, directed by Frannie Shepherd-Bates, is in revealing the risqué to be uncannily familiar: as a group, Schnitzler’s characters form a ring of unconscionable deviants, but dissected into individual components, the human mating dance appears universally bumbling, practically mundane, and likely reminiscent of a viewer’s own travails.
The two-act play contains an even ten scenes and features a total of ten characters, ranging from gentry to starving artists. Put bluntly, what binds together these representatives of different classes and occupations is their genitals, and what they want to do with them. Each scene features two opposite-sex actors, one of whom spins off into the next two-person scene: imagine a lascivious game of “The Farmer in the Dell.” Lest I make it sound too gimmicky, Schnitzler’s masterful structure — in one fell swoop — provides commentary about the role of class and power in sex, gives each character dimension by use of often-contrasting scenarios, and wordlessly predates every health class lecture on the spread of sexually transmitted disease. Scenes take place in various public and private locales; designer Alan Batkiewicz’s pieced-together set elements and tattered backdrop evoke a seedy Victorian underworld, as well as a more thematic take with respect to airing dirty laundry, of which this show has plenty.
With scenarios as varied as married intercourse, near-anonymous encounters, and masters commingling with the help, the scenes aren’t alike by any means, but Shepherd-Bates wisely roots out their many parallels. Each spans the period before, during, and after a sexual encounter; the intercourse itself is heard but not seen, somehow both minimizing and maximizing the awkwardness of group voyeurism as viewers sit in complete darkness and listen to strangely chipper music piped over a brief, animal duet. (Shepherd-Bates is also responsible for the sound design, a collection of Victrola-staticky ditties that intentionally undermine what might otherwise be mistaken for drama. In practice, the conceit is allowed to be absurdly funny, as are other elements of the characters’ interactions.) The conversational games and clumsily veiled intentions of the parties as they lead up to the act are achingly stilted, mired in the convention that the woman isn’t supposed to want it and the man isn’t permitted to ask for it. Contrasting these careful and tentative preambles are the often curt post-coital interactions, in which previously paired objectives wildly diverge. If the scenes are at all uncomfortable to watch, it’s primarily because they can ring awfully familiar — our personal mating rituals, it appears, are more universal than unique.
Each actor in the quartet, always clad in black with some subtle identifiers, portrays either two or three characters. Among them, Caroline L. Price gives her Actress a core of diffident self-importance, and Stephen Blackwell unearths well-harnessed danger from the Soldier. Kirsten Knisely shines as the hotly pursued Sweet Young Thing, deceitfully reciting weak protestations and making a rather hilarious spectacle in flagrante. As the Poet, Matthew Turner Shelton variously succeeds and fails at using his artistry for sexual leverage, making discoveries as he attempts to learn the rules of the game. Amid all the excitement and tension of potential new pairings, one of the funniest scenes takes the form of married couple Price and Blackwell; the actors play complacency and disinterest to the comic hilt and with pinpoint accuracy.
It's difficult to sum up La Ronde as merely humorous, or satirical, or disturbingly sexy, or startlingly true. Rather, the production provides an enlightening look at humankind through a very narrow lens, one that must cycle upon itself in order to perpetuate the species. The blatant exploration of sexual behavior doesn't make for a thoroughly comfortable audience experience, but the joking atmosphere and comic tone successfully engenders some element of safety in which the viewer can absorb and process this amusing foray into the most private aspects of the self.