Vienna's Haunting Imagery, Revisited

VIENNA: LUSTHAUS (REVISITED). Conceived and directed by Martha Clarke, with music by Richard Peaslee and text by Charles L. Mee. New York Theatre Workshop, Fourth Street, west of Second Avenue. Seen at Thursday's preview

By Linda Winer
Staff Writer

Every so often, there is the onstage tick-tick sound of time—impersonal yet strangely urgent, inexorable but still threatening to get scary.

And so it is with "Vienna: Lusthaus (Revisited)," the mysterious and erotic 80-minute fin-de-siecle hallucination that crawled under patrons'skins at several theaters in 1986 and opened last night at the New York Theatre with "revisited" added to the layers of imagery. Whatever changes director Martha Clarke, composer Richard Peaslee, author Charles L. Mee and designer Robert Israel have made to their dream-driven collaboration, the tick-tick march of time has done it no harm.

If anything, the theater-dance spectacle feels more haunting and haunted than it did 16 years ago, when Clarke's theater work was still hard to see without the shadow of her former home with the Pilobolus Dance Company. We would prefer, of course, that she had opened a new piece instead of adding yet another rerun—however mutated—to our strange season of revisits and revivals.

To our mind, however, this always was her most insinuating, original work—an excursion to a sex and sensibility museum infused with ancestral footsteps, Freudian undertow, fascist forebodings and live painterly echos of Schiele and Klimt. The visual box is gallery white, with a white chair a white piano bench and walls that don't quite meet at the corners. A white scrim separates us from the people at the turn of their century, though the anxieties and passions feel as immediate as a dream.

Israel also designed the costumes, long, ravishing dresses with nipped waists and corsets for the women, except the ones who get undressed to fondle on another and balance themselves on backsides as ripe as pears. Soldiers are bound in red and blue uniforms. The movements are taffy-pull pliant, with skaters and waltzers and men with riding crops who suddenly canter like horses.

The 13 performers range widely and wildly around backgrounds, with the theater's chameleon, Denis O'Hare, and the former ballet dancer, George de la Pena, oozing across boundaries with all the deliberate conviction of the collective unconscious. Mee's text is mostly disassociated vignettes and anecdotes, bits from Freud's letters to his wife, from diaries of the Hapsburg imperial family, with the languorous turning to cruelty and whimsical improbabilities turning to anti-Semitic absolutes. Peaslee's music surrounds and interrupts the imagery with evocations of a culture that, in an instant, went from Johann Strauss to Alban Berg.

At the start, and again later, someone tells about an experience at "Fidelio," where a man named Leonard suddenly "flew through the air across the seats, put his hand in my mouth and pulled out two of my teeth." Clarke's historical surreality never did resonate with the breadth and depth of that master of mass memory, Meredith Monk. But Mee says, "I see civilization sleepwalking to the edge of doom, then and now. . ." The walk is both disturbing and beautiful.