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.

Offering a postmodern slant on the ancient intricacies of love and betrayal, Steven Dietz's Private Eyes opens the season for the Aurora Fox Theatre. A two-hour comedy about a love triangle involving a stage director, an actress and her jack-of-theater-trades husband, the story is framed by a play-within-a-play structure that highlights the popular themes of truth and illusion. Sometimes all five characters resemble partially drawn cartoon characters who, frustrated by the ubiquitous unseen presence of their animator's poised-to-revise pen, seem intent on staging an impromptu revolt on their sketch-pad stage. Under director David Payne's steady hand, however, what initially appears to be a series of amorphous, disjointed ramblings about art, beauty and truth eventually takes shape as a jazz-like essay about deceit, suspicion and lies.

Set in a nameless American city that appears to be New York, the play begins as Matthew (Dan O'Neill) conducts auditions for his new play. An actress, Lisa (Trina Magness), enters and reads a few lines of dialogue for him. Certain that his dramatic omniscience will rub off on Lisa in untold creative ways, the pretentious Matthew guides the fledgling starlet through the finer points of his insipid script, then abruptly dismisses her. In the scene that follows, Matthew sits down at a table in a restaurant where Lisa works. They resume their banter and decide to sleep together. Just as they exit, we hear the voice of a British director, Adrian (Joe Miller), who enters from the Fox's auditorium. Seems that much of what we've been watching--though not necessarily all of it--has been a rehearsal for another play. And that Matthew and Lisa are a real-life husband-and-wife team whose marriage is about to undergo a serious test when Lisa becomes romantically involved with Adrian. We're also introduced to a wacky waitress-turned-private-investigator, Cory (Terri Enders-Miller), who's not all she's cracked up to be: Briefly climbing in off the imaginary window ledge of her teetering existence, she coolly and poetically says to a distraught Matthew, "Our lives are changed in distant rooms, without a word or our consent."

Of course, that particularly pithy remark might not actually have been uttered. It could be, as with most anything else in the play, a result of Matthew's tendency to apply a liberal artistic license to his memory of events. Or so suggests Matthew's therapist, Frank (Jim Hunt), who serves as a seemingly objective interlocutor for the onstage action, only to reveal his own creative angst at play's end. After guiding us (as well as the characters) through the play's many levels of reality, the helpful shrink eventually draws an interesting parallel between his years of involvement with psychological and emotional manipulation and Matthew's work in the theater.

Director Payne implements several musical styles to prop up the play's free-form construction. During one interlude, for instance, the use of overlapping styles and story lines is echoed by a jazz trumpeter's take on the French horn solo at the center of the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. At other times, the musical bridges are more literal, such as the appropriately placed "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby" and the Act Two curtain-raiser, "Fever."

And for the most part, Payne's actors are a formidable ensemble, punctuating their exchanges of dialogue with knowing glances and sexually charged body language that often revive a scene that's strayed into the deep end of the "no-one-really-understands-the-true-me" pool. Magness is alluring as the femme fatale who is equal parts architect and victim of the mess she makes of her life. Miller combines his character's swarthy earthiness with a near-foppish self-absorption (his streaked blond hair looks as if it's only halfway through a makeup call for Rent), artfully negotiating the border between vanity and genius that Lisa evidently finds attractive. As the thrice-split personality Cory, Enders-Miller is a delight in her different getups, which alternate between waitress togs and a short red leather dress; her go-go dance with O'Neill atop a restaurant cart during Act One is one of the production's more bizarre yet enjoyable moments. And although O'Neill permits Matthew to lapse into extended episodes of self-pity, his last scene with Magness is right on target: After all of the muck each character has slogged through, the play takes a stark, simple look at bare human truth in the show's final moments--with yet another surprising, gratifying twist.

Ironically, on the Fox's opening night, a few audience members expressed disappointment that they'd somehow mistaken the title of Dietz's play for Noel Coward's 1930 comedy of manners, Private Lives. And while the style of Coward's play about life behind closed doors is far different from either Dietz's or Schnitzler's, such a Freudian slip seems entirely in keeping with an ongoing theatrical fixation that, as Coward himself once noted, is here to stay.

La Ronde, presented by Way of the World Productions through October 24 at the Acoma Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524. Private Eyes, through October 24 at the Aurora Fox Theatre, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, 303-361-2910.

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