SATURDAY, MAY 11, 2002

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Jimena Paz, left and Paola Styron in "Vienna: Lusthaus (Revisited)."


Doom Chases Lust, but with Loveliness



The titillating eeriness of impending doom is exploited so gorgeously in "Vienna: Lusthaus (Revisited)" that you can understand how civilizations become complicit in their own demise. A reprise of Martha Clarke's 1986 theater piece, this seamless amalgam of dance, music and drama is set before World War I in Vienna, where Freud and Hitler overlapped, which it presents in a delicately surreal fashion as a hothouse of sensuality and incipient Nazism. The show opened on Wednesday at the New York Theater Workshop as a replacement for "Far Away," a play by Caryl Churchill that has been postponed until the fall.

The show, about a third of which has been revised, Ms. Clarke says, is meant as an evocation of a state of mind, "the unconscious world of Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century," as it is described in the program. To that end, the set turns the stage into an empty, white-walled room (a mind? a pleasure palace?), its walls slightly atilt and skewed as if jarred off their hinges by an earthquake.

Borrowing from the imagery of period painters like Schiele and Klimt, many of the scenarios created by Ms. Clarke for this setting rage with powerful eroticism. Seen behind a gauzy scrim and often in slow motion, the scenes seem watery and fogmound. They range from the lush sensuality of two women tenderly undressing each other, to the joyful thrill of a a half-dressed man and a woman rolling over and over across the stage in an intensifying embrace, to the raw, potent rutting enacted by a couple who, joined back to front in coitus, gallop together like a horse.

Impinging on the lusty abandon, however, is a mounting ominousness, a creeping shadow of authoritarianism, force, violence. A military discipline edges into the choreography, the suggestion of a goosestep. The sexual images begin to take on a harsher cast; a man wields a riding crop agains a woman's backside' the erotic poses tighten and lock, suggesting power, resistance, and submission. And the text, the free-associative tales and observations written by Charles L. Mee and appropriating the language of Freud and others, begins to grow crass, spitefully invoking the word Jew and calling up nightmare images. By the time the last few scenarios take place in a gentle snowfall, the show has become as chilling as it is sensual.


Such layered and unarticulated complexity nothwithstanding, it is genuinely hard to overstate the show's compelling loveliness. Even with its narrative interests and painterly influences, the ruling aesthetic comes from the dance, and the ensemble of a dozen is full of individuals exuding strength and sinewy grace.

Their bodies may be partly undressed or naked, or they may be clothed (the women in formidable gowns or elegant underthings, the men in military jackets and trousers), but throughout the show, Ms. Clarke makes use of the performers as physical presences in a design, the human form as an important element of a moving picture.

In addition, there is no more beautiful or evocative music being played in a New York theater at the moment than Richard Peaslee's haunting, piquantly orchestrated score. The five musicians—Jill Jaffe (violinist) Daniel Barrett (cellist), Steven Silverstein (on woodwinds), Stewart Schuele (French hornist), and Nina Kellman (harpist)—intermittently and one at a time become figures in the stage tableaus. All play with a rich, full sound. And in combination, as when angelic harp arpeggios are played against acrid chords in the winds, the sweet poison in the turn-of-the-century Vienna air lives in the pungent harmonics. It's the music of fiddling while Rome burns, which, in our own arranements, we seem to be playing rather loudly and dissonantly ourselves.

Vienna: Lusthaus (Revisited)

Concept and direction by Martha Clarke; music by Richard Peaslee; text by Charles L. Mee; set and costumes by Robert Israel; lighting by Paul Gallo; musical director, Jill Jaffe; production stage manager, Jennifer Rae Moore; assistant stage manager Greg Tito. Produced in association with True Love Productions, Inc., and Spring Lake Proctions, Inc. Presented by the New York Theater Workshop, James C. Nicola, artistic director; Linda S. Chapman, associate artistic director. At 79 East 4th Street, East Village.

With: Vivienne Benesch, Erica Berg, Elzbieta Czyzewska, Mark De Chiazza, George De La Pena, Philip Gardner, Richard Hoxie, James Lorenzo, Denis O'Hare, Jimena Paz, Andrew Robinson, Paola Styron, Julia Wilkins.

Musicians: Jill Jaffe, Daniel Barrett, Steven Silverstein, Steweart Schuele, and Nina Kellman