Time After Time: Society and its Discontents in Martha Clarke’s Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited)

Riding ardent early reviews, steady houses, and its own burnished beauty, director/choreographer Martha Clarke’s Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited) extended its spring run at New York Theater Workshop through late July. Its success is encouraging; dare one hope that theater as generous and as austere as Vienna is becoming a trend? Enticement in the theater, as in life, wields an irreducible proportion to some crucial, resonant withholding, and though it pays to slop it on the stage, Clarke’s Vienna is not very sloppy.

Ripe with period finesse, rife with fin-de-siècle anxiety, Vienna appeals and repels, its opulence resounding with hollow laughter, its cultural coin double-faced by scientific exploits and endemic anti-Semitism. A polka whirls into militaristic stomps, while nature’s singular miracles elicit fascinated unease. The officer (George de la Pena), who becomes his own stallion in the dressage rink early in the piece, cavorts about the stage flexing his riding crop and clacking his boot heels in a late snow flurry. Upper windows are to be walked out of, an offstage clock tocks its sinister tread, and man, born then gone in hospitals, “ought to live in a place that looks like a hospital” (in Vivienne Benesch’s fine, harried delivery).

With precious little on stage (the walls loom at sundered angles over slat flooring), Robert Isreal’s pale, spare set qualifies as that hospital, especially if it’s been jacked into the mind, shorn of the clutter of normal waking consciousness, then positioned as drawing room/HQ for Freud’s oneiric motivation. For Vienna a century ago is something like the day residual of our current culture, so near at hand we could almost overlook it yet so influential that our rampant activities scramble to obscure its impact.

On this stage affectingly stripped of affect, eleven lean, exacting actors and dancers (frequently stripped themselves) enact Schiele portraits, utter soliloquies from the casebooks of Kraft-Ebbing and Freud, shifting all the while through repeated tableaux vivants of rapacious desire. Cultivated on the outside, feral on the inside, just who’s more shocked when the twain actually meet?

Schnitzler’s theater of social vivisection gets referenced, as does Berg’s brilliant, wearing opera Wozzeck (a soldier dehumanized as a doctor’s experiment; the music bearing the death scene’s chilling brunt). Women brim with frustration and bridle at outright abuse, while the men, who club and cluster then espouse racial purity, wind up straggling onstage, their regimentation in tatters before they teeter and collapse.

In Clarke’s seamless aesthetic, dancers act while actors move, and the musicians arrive onstage singly to underline and punctuate the proceedings. The best through-line in the work may be Richard Peaslee’s delicate and driven score, with Jill Jaffe leading a crack ensemble of strings (violin/harp/cello) intertwined with winds (clarinet/horn) and seasoned with the occasional squeeze box or bass drum roll.

Yet even the music masks its evocative complexities: A veneer of Viennese themes and figures results in a manner that is deceptively simple and difficult to put one’s finger on. Unless (or until) one resorts to the obvious: Vienna is blatantly, potently emotional work, not liable to leave many people with the overvalued sense of having “gotten it” because it’s not precisely there to be got. It suggests instead that its strings and streams are part of both our cultural heritage and our aesthetic temperaments, while playing down into realms that are as motile, risky, and deeply embedded as can be.

To make a comparison: While sciences and commerce have made great leaps over what our forebears could resort to a hundred years ago (diseases conquered, fortunes made and spent), there are no new human emotions. What’s more (or less), Vienna operates with the guiding principle that the palette and the result of human emotions are just the same then as now. Down in the pit it is preternatural, gory, turgid, with things back in the store warehouse of the reptile brain exquisite, urgent, and patently unsettling.

As cultural construct, Vienna works as a timely dissection of alienation as the inevitable adjunct to overripe cultural prosperity (do we recall the suicides of the Enron exec and the Clinton aide?). Clarke and playwright Charles Mee’s approach so utterly digests storyline specifics, in pursuit of the emotional underpinnings of an essentially (and recurring) decadent condition, that it is its gestures which remain to give the piece resilience and structure. Gazes are cast about, met but more frequently missed across a set bare save for a bentwood chair, until a brief bench is carted on by a character in long johns (that bench will be put to much use in seated dance solos by Erica Berg, then Julia Wilkins).

A moonlit love scene is remembered aloud, then concludes with a kiss given to the rememberer, and reverse anthropomorphics have a military man and his lover playing horse. Two sylphs slip offstage as if rowing their sheet, then one (Paoloa Styron) returns on that sheet, upright, silent, statuesque. A dancer (Andrew Robinson) plays both parts of a sexual tryst that could be a rape then, in a brutal mutation, jackboots offstage on his knees while two mute actors watch, alternately aghast and amazed, left behind in an atmosphere so drenched in Paul Gallo’s light that it could be bleached amber or lambent tar.

The opening soliloquy repeats as a stilted duet, adding a dream of public pedophilia. Other passages are re-uttered in German (by the excellent Elizbieta Czyzewska) tinged by Hapsburg-era ethnic diversity. The Doctor (Richmond Hoxie) may veer nearest to taboo: Is his eager bench mate (Berg) the same daughter in a scene he’s recalling, “positively drenched” by an errant fountain shooting its plume of water “right into her face”? He will turn from one officer’s death throes as if stupefied, to watch a cellist (Daniel Barrett) play from Bach in the bentwood chair (an instance of Clarke and Peaslee’s avid appropriation, as the now-famous cello suites were but practice pieces during the Vienna epoch).

Early on, exasperated by his haughty mother’s meddling, the Doctor storms offstage insisting “there is nothing whatever to be done” for her Countess friend. His mother (Czyzewska), not one to miss the last beat, affirms that it “is practically never too late to learn that there is nothing to be done.” Touché, accursed progenitor. Later, a pair of dancers (Philip Gardner and Jimena Paz) embody impassioned love with luscious, stylized enthusiasm, then mime outrage at that passion’s inability to flourish amid cultivated hypocrisy. Star-crossed, ill-fated, the pair are based (inexplicitly) on Austria’s Crown Prince Rudolph and his lover Maria Vetsera, whose affair blazed at the pinnacle of society before they sealed it in a death pact at Meyerling, the royal summer estate.

But Vienna neither requires nor allows its audience to rely on these historical details, opting for emotional volatility over narrative exactitude. Gardner, in an icy Blakeian fury, stalks the stage surrounded by poles of pretense and abandon; what he’s felt with his lover won’t let him resume those heights of fashionable presumption. And when Paz reaches to pull his pistol into her mouth, she’s not fooling around. She’s opted for the only liberation she senses from the culture in which she’s shone, and which can no longer contain her. She reappears post mortem in one of the set’s dark portals, with long feathers in her black hat, as her lover writhes on the stage in the snow, supine and nude. Achingly lovely music thrums, shot through with its concluding rumbles. With her heavy black skirts lifted out before her like a prow, she crosses the stage in a slo-mo skate for a theatrical moment that is as gentle, in some bizarre way, as it is terrifying.

As the “(revisited)” in its title indicates, Vienna is an update of the play with which Clarke, who was a founding member of the dance group Pilobulus, arrived on the theater scene back in ’86. Her work has been produced on Broadway and in opera houses around the world since that time, with her Peter and the Wolf (to Schubert’s sublime piano trio) at ABT this August. Vienna tours central Europe in the autumn, then begins a U.S. tour at Kennedy Center in D.C. early next year. And Clarke and her team have begun work on a new piece, based on Toulouse Lautrec, which will premier uptown in spring, ’03.

“Theatrical time, which is based upon breath,” as Artaud has it in a letter, “sometimes rushes by in great, consciously willed exhalations, sometimes contracts and attenuates a prolonged feminine inhalation.” Clarke gives a great deal to observe in her work—the giddy thrill of Vienna skaters spinning their partners high off their chests; the futile, lust-like shaking of a corpse by a sobbing woman while cellist Barrett plays across stage—and, for weeks, audiences at New York Theater Workshop sat in fascination, weathering it, feeling. It was precisely the quiet in the house, when the lights fell on both sides of the stage’s scrim, that described receptivity, the collective exhalation before the applause began.

Contributor

Alan Lockwood

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