Under the Covers

For better or worse, the wobbly wheel of sexual politics as entertainment appears to be shimmying out of control. Prurient as it may be, theatergoers' interest in sexual power plays is hardly a twentieth-century phenomenon. Even 2,400 years ago, the subject occupied center stage in such bedroom farces as Aristophanes's oft-performed Lysistrata, in which a group of Athenian women refuse to sleep with their husbands until the menfolk effect a swift end to a bloody civil war. And as a pair of local productions demonstrate, combining suggestive sexual humor and razor-sharp romantic intrigue can result in a satisfying, if predictable, look at our strange obsession with all things erotic.

Austrian physician Arthur Schnitzler's 1896 play La Ronde is being presented at the Acoma Center as the premiere production of a new Denver theater group called Way of the World Productions. The company, "dedicated to reviving dramatic treasures which are not frequently enough seen," has wisely chosen to introduce itself to local audiences by way of a rarely performed play that's weathered decades of attention-getting controversy. The ten-scene pastiche has also been the basis for countless adaptations, including the current London production of David Hare's The Blue Room, in which Nicole Kidman portrays modern-day versions of all five of Schnitzler's finely crafted female roles. The well-staged local effort, under the inventive direction of Len Kiziuk, manages to convey most of the dramatist's themes about appearance and reality, though the director and his stalwart cast sometimes fail to plumb a few of the play's Chekhovian undercurrents.

Set in Vienna, the play begins with a well-staged tableaux in which all ten characters sustain poses of slightly forced gaiety, a choice that beautifully foreshadows the giddy denial that permeated Viennese society prior to the Austrian capital's collapse during World War I. After the characters break their positions and engage in a brief dance, The Prostitute (Mary Ann Amiri) and The Soldier (Philip Doyle) exchange pleasantries before transacting some illicit business. To the accompaniment of rousing orchestral music and flickering, faux-fireworks lighting effects, the couple steps behind a curtain to consummate their lovemaking, thereby establishing a convention that's repeated in each subsequent scene whenever passion reaches a fevered pitch. It's a cute choice that unfortunately grows tiresome midway through the ninety-minute intermissionless show.

Following his quickie with the streetwalker, our young military man then hops in the sack with The Chambermaid (Christie Cass), who in turn shares a mattress moment with her boss, The Young Gentleman (Guy Williams). Like an Internet chain letter spinning out of control, the plot continues apace. Williams's man-about-town engages in a torrid affair with The Young Wife (Joan Staples), who defies Schnitzler's unnatural copulating order by actually bedding down with her own mate, The Husband (Clint Heyn). This rogue and philanderer winds up tiptoeing through the table settings of a private dining room with The Sweet Young Thing (Sue Niedringhaus), who soon falls prey to the lusty clutches of The Poet (Richard Robb). In a petty duel of sensitive egos, the hammish scribe continues the game of musical beds with The Actress (Glenna Kelly), who in turn sleeps with The Count (Stephen R. Kramer). Things are finally brought full circle when this aging, uniformed nobleman pays his customary visit to the prostitute we met in the first scene.

Most of Kiziuk's staging choices, including his imaginative use of a large oval platform that represents everything from a bedchamber to a streetcorner (in a set designed by Charles Dean Packard), complement the play's endlessly circular structure. Aided by a tasteful array of costumes by Sally A. Burke and moody, if sometimes too-dim, lighting by Sheree Goecke, Kiziuk effectively crafts a believable environment of old-world elegance. Through the ingenious use of hanging gold draperies, suspended burgundy canopies and cascading bolts of silver satin fabric, the director masterfully differentiates one bedchamber from another--sometimes within the space of a few seconds.

But while most of Kiziuk's physical staging choices are impressive, his decision to place all of the performers on stage for most of the show is ill-advised. True, it's occasionally amusing to watch a few of the actors shake their heads disapprovingly or raise an eyebrow in response to what's happening during each isolated tete-a-tete; but Kiziuk's group-grope approach sometimes obliterates Schnitzler's delicate moments of intimacy. After all, part of our enjoyment in observing these tawdry liaisons is knowing that we're the only ones privy to the interconnected nature of the characters' secretive decadence. Employing the occasional voyeuristic touch, such as one or two characters strolling by an imaginary open window at a particularly crucial moment in this or that scene, would have served the production better.

Several of the actors deliver fine portrayals that add some much-needed spice to this enjoyable farrago. Leading the company is Staples, who renders a marvelous portrait of the double-dealing wife. As she and the versatile Williams dance on their knees while attempting to undress each other (and, later, when she attempts a mid-sex-act yodel with Heyn), Staples brings to mind the sort of controlled comic chaos made famous by Carol Burnett. Williams turns in a richly comic portrayal as the uptight aristocrat who carefully folds his pants just before he dives between the sheets. Niedringhaus manages to reveal her character's radically split personality--this coquette is far more manipulative than she is sweet--with admirable skill. And despite the fact that most of the actors would do well to emphasize the tragic as well as the comic aspects of their two-faced characters, veteran performer Kramer manages to invest his musing playboy with a foreboding philosophical charm. "Those who believe in love always find a woman to love them," he murmurs near the end of the play, adding at least a trace of much-needed irony to this otherwise amusing but somewhat superficial tumble in the turn-of-the-century Viennese hay.

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