Clothes strewn on the floor. Dimmed lights. A couple intertwined on a couch. Whispered words. Passionate kisses.
An upstairs room at a USC frat house? One might guess. But no, it is La Ronde, the scandalous, thought-provoking play opening this Thursday at USC. The play explores various relationships between men and women, including husband and wife, man and mistress, master of the house and parlor maid and soldier and prostitute. The small vignettes, or “dialogues,” as noted by playwright Arthur Schnitzler, show the various couples before and after their sexual encounters. The show is a School of Dramatic Arts production and is directed by faculty member and Artistic Director Jack Rowe.
When the show was first publicly performed in 1920, it elicited extreme reactions from both critics and the public. Though many members of high society had accepted that these affairs frequently happened, they were not prepared to be exposed to them on stage. Schnitzler was seen to be inappropriately shattering taboos in his urgent social commentary, and the play was banned from performance in Germany for many years.
From first glance, this might be seen as “the sex show;” even the actors admit that is how they thought of it after first reading. And truly, the basic plot of the show revolves around sex. But after looking closer, one can see it is about much more than that.
“You come for the sex, but you stay for the conversation. It’s not just the sex that’s provocative,” said Kaitlin Kelly, who plays a character simply called “The Whore.”
Though the play was written and takes place in the late 1890s, the themes addressed by the playwright are incredibly accessible. Schnitzler’s discussion of class, gender, relationships, age, infidelity and happiness are as relevant today as they were during its first production.
La Ronde, meaning, “the round,” was originally titled “Der Reigen,” which means “a round dance.” This circular concept is an excellent description of the play’s structure, both throughout the entire work and within each scene. Through each scene, we see couples come together, then move apart, a seamless transition from one lover to the next — sort of “what goes around, comes around” mentality in a world where hypocrisy and secrecy rule.
The actors particularly found parallels between the show and life at USC.
“The play is about looking beyond just that one moment of pleasure and trying to make a real connection with someone. That connection is very easily lost right now, especially with USC’s hook-up culture,” said Maddie Gill, who plays “The Actress.” “That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to this play, because I think it’s a story that needs to be told.”
Though one might think performing such a sexual show would be the biggest challenge for the actors, many cast members admit the format of the show is one of the biggest difficulties.
“We have to keep the ensemble together. Having a cast when most of you never interact on stage is a challeng; we have to make sure we all tell the same story,” Kelly said.
To Gill, “La Ronde” means “it’s all connected, and you have to find the connections.” Finding these connections is not easily done.
“You’re only in two scenes, so there must be some sort of change in your character between the two scenes,” Gill said.
Though difficult, Joanna Brodecki “The Parlor Maid” gushed “when something works, it’s the best feeling. It’s the most beautiful thing. Every challenge has been so fun.”
The writing and language itself has been an additional challenge for the performers, and not just because the play is 100 years old.
“It’s all subtext,” Gill said. “There’s no real action in the play, not a plot like ‘Hamlet’s dad is dead’ sort of thing. It’s all focused on words, and it is easy to get lost if you don’t know what you’re talking about. You have to find the specificity in everything.”
Kelly said that the dialogue gives actors a great challenge.
“His writing is very open-ended, and it’s a great challenge for an actor to have to make lots of active decisions on your own,” Kelly said. “It’s definitely daunting when you have a million ellipses and each one is a different specific choice that is completely open to your interpretation.”
The actors feel there are many themes that audiences today, especially students, will relate to. Much of the play revolves around the idea of happiness — is happiness attainable? If so, how?
“Is it through love? Is it through sex? Is it through money? Is it through food? Spoiler alert: It’s not,” Kelly said.
In today’s digital world, where things are constantly changing and we are constantly being fed information, La Ronde is about being “in the moment, versus maintaining something in the future or looking in the past,” Brodecki said.
The cast was particularly passionate as discussing the impact and importance of the show:
“It’s looking at relationships in general and appreciating everyone you interact with,” Brodecki said.
Kelly agreed, “It’s gaining some perspective on the importance every moment can have.
“It’s about realizing everyone’s a person and Facebook isn’t a person,” Gill added.
Perhaps Schnitzel is able to say it best, as he writes in one of the final scenes of the play, “Happiness? Happiness doesn’t exist. None of the things people chatter about really exist … Love, for instance. It’s the same with love. Enjoyment … intoxication … there’s nothing wrong with them, they’re real. I enjoy something, all right, and I know I enjoy it. Or I’m intoxicated, all right. That’s real too. And when it’s over, it’s over, that’s all.”
La Ronde runs Thursday, April 3, through Sunday, April 6 at the Scene Dock Theater. Tickets are available at the door or through the Ticket Office.