Thursday, August 27, 2009

Review – La Ronde (New York International Fringe Festival, Big Signature Productions)

Review by Erin Winebark

The Director’s Note in the playbill for La Ronde states, “If La Ronde were just a play about sex, you’d all be watching Showtime right now and not watching a play written in the time of Freud and syphilis. In fact, if there’s one noticeable omission from this play, it’s the sex.” Given that, I would agree that Larry Biederman’s version was not at all about sex, however, it didn’t really seem to be even remotely about the story. Biederman’s vision of La Ronde, was all about experimental directorial choices.

I don’t mean the above statement to be as derogatory as it sounds. The production values in La Ronde were incredible. Biederman clearly had so many cutting-edge artistic ideas that he needed to try all out in one show, and they were successful much of the time. He employed everything from voiceovers with the actors speaking over filmed scenes to voiceunders, where the actors mouthed words that were prerecorded. He used the stunningly simple set, a large drape of white cloth with stitching resembling a spider’s web with a hole in the middle and a few chairs, in a number of creative and interesting ways. The aforementioned drape served as a backdrop for projections, as clothing, and even as bed sheets. In one particularly interesting scene, characters switched roles, even costume pieces, and each took turns in the other’s shoes.

While these were all truly innovative ideas, most of which I’d never seen before, I wasn’t always sure what purpose they served, other than to be interesting (though if that was the goal, then, goal achieved!). I like to see directorial choices enlighten the text or show the story in some new way, and some of Biederman’s direction did not accomplish that. In one case, namely, the first scene, the actors constantly moved chairs to create an ever-evolving set. While it was a great idea for the first two minutes, it quickly wore thin and even turned into a distraction. In the same scene, the actors frenetically walked around in circles, or back and forth across the stage, presumably to show the passage of time. As with the chairs, in moderation, this was a great idea, however after the 20th circle, I wondered what the point was other than to exhaust the poor actors.

John Eckert’s lighting was truly stunning, and was the highlight of the show. He did a fantastic job of making it both functional and artistic, and the special lighting effects were superb (one that jumps to mind is when an actor mimed lighting a match, a warm orange glow flooded the backdrop). The use of neon signs (controlled by the actors via foot pedals) to show which characters were in any given scene was both helpful and amazingly creative.

As actors, Alyson Weaver and Ken Barnett are clearly talented, however my impression is that most of the director’s energy in this production was spent on production values, not on noticing their acting. Both gave stylized performances, but they seemed to be of two different styles; Weaver seemed to be in 2009 Vienna, while Barnett was in 1900 Vienna--both valid, but it would have been nice to see a more unified cast. It’s a good thing that this was not a play about sex, because there was no chemistry between the two of them. That said, both had individual moments of greatness. Barnett’s performance felt truthful and convincing, especially in the Husband/Young Wife scene, and Weaver showed real vulnerability as the Parlor Maid. And both actors need to be applauded for the sheer physical demands of their roles — the energy they were able to sustain throughout the evening in a theater where the air conditioning wasn’t working up to par was incredible.

All said and done, this show is really more of an avant-garde adaptation of Schnitzler’s La Ronde than anything else. Even though I feel that the true intent of the story - showing the dark, seedy side of gilded fin-de-siècle society in Vienna - was lost, the show is worth seeing purely for the interesting direction and absolutely amazing lighting.

La Ronde
Written by Arthur Schnitzler
Translated by Carl R. Mueller
Directed by Larry Biederman
Associate Producers: Linda Toliver and Gary Guidinger
Lighting Designer: John Eckert
Sound Designer, Original Score Composer: John Zalewski
Costume Designer: Soojin Lee
Stage Manager: Ashley K. Singh
Graphic Designer: Szimple Design
General Press Rep: Penny Landau/Maya PR

Featuring: Alyson Weaver (The Woman) and Ken Barnett (The Man)

HERE Arts Center
145 6th Ave.
Saturday, August 15th at 5:45 PM
Sunday, August 16th at 9:15 PM
Tuesday, August 18th at 4:45 PM
Thursday, August 20th at 6:15 PM
Friday, August 21st at 7:00 PM

Visit FringeNYC for more information.

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