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A CurtainUp Review
' By Elyse Sommer
Erotically super-charged pre World War I Vienna as envisioned by Martha Clarke is quite the fun or pleasure house (The German word " lust" translates into pleasure and gaiety). Beautifully gowned ladies and handsome officers attend the opera, dance, gossip, walk to the edge of life -- and plunge into its unknown depths to grapple with love and destruction. Their fragmented conversations and monologues are forebodings of the anti-Semitism and bloodshed that will overtake Vienna and the rest of Europe. They are full of the fantasies and dreams their countryman Sigmund Freud so famously analyzed. Besides the revelatory bits of sometimes overlapping dialogue several of the dancers in the ensemble literally shed their surface layers creating the effect of models stepping forth from the canvases of two of Vienna's most provocative and sexually explicit painters, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiel.
Ms. Clarke is known for marrying her distinctive movement imagery to literature and art sources. Her best known theater dance or movement piece, The Garden of Earthly Delights took its inspiration from the fifteenth century painter Hieronymus Bosch. In Vers La Flamme, reviewed by CurtainUp two years ago at Jacob's Pillow, she used the music of Alexander Scriabin and five short stories by Anton Chekhov. (see link below).
Unlike Vers La Flamme, which had no dialogue, except a bark from Clarke's own dog, Vienna: Lusthaus, has a script written by the prolific Charles L. Mee. To do justice to and merge his text elements with the movements, the thirteen-member ensemble features actors as well as modern dancers. The thirty-two tableaus -- some spoken, some movement, some a combination of both -- are smoothly integrated to create the aura of both propriety and decadence, conscious and unconscious desire.
Mee's interest in things Greek pops up in one man's (Richmond Hoxie) recollection of a nightmarish struggle with a gigantic rat that looked him right in the eye and wouldn't die even as he got it by the neck and started to choke it, leaving him with the thought: "This is some kind of Greek Fate, isn't it, to be left forever trying to choke a rat." All the speaking members of the ensemble have a firm grasp on his bits and pieces of symbolism strewn text but Vivienne Benesch and Dennis O'Hare stand out. Benesch's character, is the most consistent, conveying the feel of an early modern woman who knows what she wants and -- per the work's single but quite delightful song -- what she doesn't want. When a very proper gentleman (Denis O'Hare) tell Benesch that a casual acquaintance "flew through the air across the seats [at the opera] put his hand in my mouth,and pulled out two of my teeth?", she maintains her cool, asking only if the teeth puller was a Jew. In quite a different vein, her cool on the outside and turbulent on the inside character quite graphically talks about her sexual desire for a young man she met in India.
The choreography is, typical of Clarke, measured and very sensuous with a good deal of Klimt and Schiele inspired nudity. But the most memorable dance number is the amusing "Boot Solo" in which Andrew Robinson uses his boot-clad hands to amazing effect. George de la Pena's one-man take on Austria's famous Lippizaner horses is another choreographic highlight. The music by composer Richard Peaslee, a previous Clarke collaborator, is appealing and performed live by musicians, three of whom have on stage solos.
The angled white set Robert Israel has created for his colorful red and blue uniforms and lush black and white costumes is most effective. Paul Gallo's lighting adds an impressionistic glow, the latter intensified by a gossamer scrim between actors and audience.
To explain the parenthetical "revisited", Vienna: Lusthaus is not a new piece, nor is it new to Manhattan. It had its New York premiere in 1986 at St. Clement's Episcopal Church. During the rest of the year and through the following summer it ran at the New York Shakespeare Festival and at the Kennedy Center in D.C. It also toured California, Denver, Minneapolis, Ann Arbor and Vienna and it is the new pieces developed during its history that prompted the parenthetical addition to the title. On the other hand, while this was an early theatrical outing for Mr. Mee, it is the fourth work by him be staged Off-Broadway this season.