A stunningly modern, minimalist set combined with heavy techno music and projected images of cell phone screens clearly signalled Jason Sherman’s ultra-modern adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, performed by Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. The turn-of-the-last-century work that scandalized early 1920s’ viewers is a bold exposé of sexual morés. One wishes for a time-machine to witness the reaction to the play at that time. This appears to be Sherman’s intent: to ramp up the shock factor to create the same reaction today that those audiences of post-WW1 Germany experienced.
The Austrian playwright, Arthur Schnitzler, wrote La Rondein the 1890s, but the play was banned after publication and wasn’t performed until 1920 in Berlin. As a result, Schnitzler, a Jew, found himself at the centre of a well-publicized obscenity trial.
La Ronde is a series of vignettes focusing on couples involved in intense sexual relationships. The play achieves cohesiveness through the re-appearance of one character from one vignette to the next. Raising questions of human sexuality, Sherman’s adaptation misses no ground by including threesomes, prostitution, inter-racial sexual encounters, rape, artificial insemination, ethics of procreation and sado-masochism. One of the recurring themes throughout the play is that sex has become a mindless act, as common as sending a text message. Underscoring that message was video and set designer, Lorenzo Savoini’s, video displays of iPhone menus and texts intermingled with sexual encounters. Savoini’s window at backstage was utter brilliance, allowing for realistic scene changes with imposed screen images of familiar Toronto streetscapes. Director Alan Dilworth must be a fan of Rear Window. One vignette that focused on two soldiers stalking a Congolese housemaid, escalated the horror f’actor to Hitchcockesque stature by employing crescendoed, suspense-filled music and good use of that ominous window. Thomas Ryder Payne’s choice of pulsating techno music underscored the often dangerous elements at play during these sexual liaisons. Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” was a particularly appropriate selection.
Brandon McGibbon brought authenticity and angst to his role as the sexually-inexperienced lover, Lucas, in some truly awkward moments while taking instruction from a sex therapist. Brenda Robins’ s Eve was authoritative and convincing one moment, and suitably vulnerable the next. Another standout was Adrian Morningstar as the virginal student who brought sensitivity, mixed with virile curiosity to his role. Where things in the acting sphere broke down, however, were in the lack of spontaneity in some of the verbal exchanges, that were instead delivered mechanically. But in all fairness, Sherman’s script, while witty and full of double entendres in parts, lacked consistent crispness in writing. While all of the actors deserve credit for exhibiting this sexually-charged piece on stage, some clearly brave performances belong to Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as the repressed investment banker Robert who is into bondage and Leah Doz as Sonja, the prostitute. Kudos to dialect coach Diane Pitblado for Doz’s pitch perfect Russian accent.
All of the provocative displays and lack of restraint in Sherman’s adaptation certainly keep one’s eyes affixed to the stage throughout the two-hour plus performance; however, after seeing La Ronde, one feels satiated with the exploration of the subject without the accompanying feeling of having seen something great. The play, however, does aggressively court controversy. And for that reason alone, it’s definitely worth a visit since you don’t see a work as ribald and racy as Soulpepper Theatre’s La Ronde in Toronto every day.
Perhaps outside of prim and proper Toronto, the following advice need not be dispensed: Be prepared for not only full-frontal nudity, but some graphically-displayed sexual acts. As my seatmate proclaimed, “This isn’t The Wizard of Oz.”
Soulpepper Theatre’s production of La Ronde runs from March 26 to May 4, 2013 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Historic Distillery District. Tickets may be purchased online at Soulpepper Theatre.