May 9-15, 2002  

Vienna: Lusthaus (Revisited)
Conceived and directed by Martha Clarke. Text by Charles L. Mee. Music by Richard Peaslee. With ensemble cast. New York Theatre Workshop (See Off Broadway)
by David Cole

You know those folks morphing into birds, trees and precious metals at Circle-in-the-Square in Mary Zimmermans Metamorphoses? They aren't the only mortals undergoing strange changes. Downtown, darker mutations are happening—soldiers into stallions, lovers into duelists, parents into predators—without Ovid's protective layer of fantasy. Although to contemporary Americans, fin-de-siecle Vienna seems about as quaintly distant as mythological Greece, Martha Clarke's dance-theater gem, Vienna: Lusthaus, has the added force of historical resonance. Vienna, after all, was home to astonishing variety of figures like Freud, Hitler and the scandalous playwright Arthur Schnitzler. In 32 hauntingly austere episodes, Clarke channels a world waltzing on the razor's edge of refinement and barbarity.

Handsomely revived after 16 years, Lusthaus has lost none of its elegant beauty. An ensemble of actor-dancers and musicians wander into a stark dreamworld where they relate bizarre dreams or fall into desperate, clawing embraces. In Robert Israel's set, cantilevered walls and tall doorways are seen through a misty scrim at the front, making the whole thing resemble both a grand mansion and an asylum. Actors speak fragments from Freud's casebooks

or diaries. The plotless script, adapted from period sources by Charles L. Mee, subtly shifts from the innocent sexual anecdotes of young women to soldiers' bland explanation of anti-Semitism. As in Mee's other plays, the language is exact and clinical in its view of human desire and cruelty.

Clarke (who started as a dancer for Pilobolus in the '70s and was most prolific in the '80's) re-creates her simple but forceful choreography, never showing off the classically-trained dancers' abilities, but finding the most economical and evocative phrase. In an early scene, a handsome soldier, accompanied by French horn, begins stamping the ground impatiently. His arch, militant stance slowly assumes the haughty bearing of a Lipizzaner show horse as he canters around the stage comically. At the end of his dance, though, his body crumples to all fours, and his exit becomes a tortured, knuckle-scraping nightmare of beastliness.

Nudity figures prominently, some of it imitating painter Gustav Klimt's sinuous backs and profiles. Clarke and Mee catalog the repression and release of sexual energy in the dreams and affairs of the Viennese bourgeoisie, and though the stereotype of sexual hysteria is given ample stage time, there's an equally frank depiction of healthy desire. Both views are needed to give a fully-rounded picture of this fascinating, faded world.