May 21, 2002, Vol. XLVII No.20

Clarke and Mee Reprised


The white horses galloping through some of Martha Clarke's previous works don't turn up in Vienna: Lusthaus (revisted), but the human beings act like beasts and do have equestrian tendencies. Among the fleeting images in Clarke's dance-theater panorama: A woman dreamily recalls fondling a horse and then its rider in ancient India. Marching troops lift their feet like hooves. A man combs a woman's hair as if grooming a mane, jumps her from behind, and trots off. Later a soldier tousles his lover's blouse, face, and hair with a riding crop. Bourgeois women parade in step through falling snow, lifting their legs like show ponies.

Subconscious animal impulses—lust, domination, violence—emerge in many of the fragments in Clarke's gorgeous mosaic of imagery, movement, and dialogue evoking early-20th-century Vienna. With the fluidity of a dream, Clarke continuously moves clusters of characters through two giant doorways onto Robert Israel's pristine set of white walls and empty space. In vignettes suggested by Freud's casebooks and paintings by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, these figures often embark on erotic explorations—touching each other's bodies or recounting fantasies—with intruding hints of physical brutality or psychological pain.

Private realities project public ones, as Clarke links the power dynamics embedded in these encounters to looming militarism. Industry had torn Old World society apart, and turn-of-the-century Vienna (as now) was haunted by the specter of global war. Clarke suggests the era's mobilization with the ghostly presence of uniformed soldiers and introduces clock sounds in speechless moments, as if to join history and the present, time and the inevitable. She conjures a modern moment that's equally charged and hollow; we can feel both the electricity of a city unshackling its repressed desires and the grotesque deadness falling all over it.

The current version at New York Theatre Workshop, with music by Richard Peaslee, is a revival of the 1986 original. I didn't see it then, so can't say what's been "revisited." But it's too bad the text wasn't better parsed as part of the remake; Charles L. Mee's breathy dream-prose doesn't have the eloquence of Clarke's disarming stage poetry. Nonetheless, Vienna: Lusthaus fulfills the director's lyrical vision: It is an eerily sensual prelude to the new century's lust for violence.