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Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited)

By New York City
Denis O'Hare and Paola Styron in Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited)(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Denis O'Hare and Paola Styron in Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited)
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Martha Clarke's Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited), with a text by Charles L. Mee, is about dreams. To be more precise, this dance-theater work, which unfolds behind a veil-like white screen, appears to be about a series of linked dreams. So maybe it's no surprise that the quietly gorgeous piece has an indisputably oneiric feel. Like dreams, Clarke's profound creation is fragmented, illogical, intriguing, resonant with sexual undercurrents, cagey about revealing exact meanings. Also like dreams, it is repetitive; much of the material seems to be recurring, if in slightly varied vignettes.

As a matter of fact, the production itself is recurring: It was first presented by the same collaborative team in 1986. Abetting Clarke and Mee were Richard Peaslee, who composed the elegiac music, and Robert Israel, who designed the bare, white set with its two, simply carved doorframes and the tasteful, period costumes. Although I saw Vienna: Lusthaus then and remember being mesmerized by it, I can't report with any accuracy how much Clarke, always a probing and restless artist, has revised it or how much her colleagues were called upon to change. (Evidently, Clarke is saying she's fiddled with about a third of the piece.)

The setting for this impressionistic effort is, as the title states, Vienna...but this is a Vienna of the ever-active mind. A note in the program by Clarke states that shards of the piece are "taken from the paintings of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, from the casebooks of Sigmund Freud." Although I haven't gone to those casebooks for corroboration, I wouldn't be surprised to find that the dialogue which Mee has the unidentified characters murmur as they come and go, often in the slow motion of dreams, is lifted directly from Freud's enthralling annals. "I was standing once on the banks of the Danube," one man in a frock coat declares as part of the chain of interlocking recollections. Another character insists, in one of those wonderful one-liners that can pop up in a dream and survive its termination, "It's never too late to learn there's nothing to be done."

What must have struck Clarke when she first considered developing this dance drama was that, once Freud proclaimed dreams the royal road to the unconscious, there must have followed for the first time in history a proliferation of people describing their dreams with the hope of definitive explanations. Because of Freud's presence, Vienna was the first city on the globe where the locals were able to have their dreams explicated in a scientific rather than spiritual manner. We know the kind of seismic effect Freud's career had on the history of psychology, and the epicenter was Vienna.

Clarke's work, then, is an abstracted depiction of the city at the turn of the century as its people awaken to the new significance of dreams. She suggests the uncertainty that dreams appear to represent, documenting in her own oblique way the new and disturbing sense that the center couldn't hold. Wasn't there, Clarke must have asked herself, a frenzy among many adventurous dreamers for the premier psychoanalyst's analysis? She apparently sifted through Freud's accumulated material, then sorted out the repeating images and emerging symbols--many of them, as Freud saw things, indicative of repressed sexual desires. This has to be why, throughout the oh-so-loose narrative, Clarke has threaded references to the loss of teeth, to trains entering tunnels, to horses expressing and losing their powers. She sends soldiers out to twirl young women around or, in the case of one military man, to imitate a pawing, rearing horse. Young women caress one another, sometimes in their pristine undergarments and, eventually, in no clothing at all. People spy on one another, feel spied upon. A young woman accompanying her gallant is replaced by a woman of a certain age. Snow falls on the Viennese as they head determinedly across town. Nothing is elucidated, all is implied.

(l to r) Elzbieta Czyzewska, Julia Wilkins, Jimena Paz, Paola Styron, Denis O'Hare, Vivienne Benesch, and Erica Bergin Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited)(Photo: Joan Marcus)
(l to r) Elzbieta Czyzewska, Julia Wilkins, Jimena Paz, Paola Styron,
Denis O'Hare, Vivienne Benesch, and Erica Berg
in Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited)
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Sounds like heady and heavy stuff, no? Yet Clarke goes about her work with a kind of forceful delicacy. Emblematic of her light touch is the image of a young woman sitting on a bench, then slowly drifting downward until it seems as if she's taking flight. The entire company understands the shifting moods Clarke is after: They are Vivienne Benesch, Erica Berg, Elzbieta Czyzewska, Mark DeChiazza, George de la Pena, Philip Gardner, Richmond Hoxie, James Lorenzo, Denis O'Hare, Jimena Paz, Andrew Robinson, Paola Styron, and Julia Wilkins. Though working together seamlessly, some of these have the opportunity to grab individual focus, occasionally in the nude. Whether in or out of Robert Israel's graceful outfits, all of the performers are quite beautiful.

The musicians, some of whom appear on stage to play Peaslee's muted threnodies, are Jill Jaffe, Daniel Barrett, Steven Silverstein, Stewart Schuele, and Nina Kellman; the last-named person, standing just inside one of the wide doorways, plucks a harp that amusingly gets on one of the character's nerves. The piece on the whole may also agitate audience nerves, but there can be no denying that what has surfaced from Clarke's unconscious on the subject of the collective unconscious has the ability to stun. In more ways than one, Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited) is dreamy.


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