Vienna: Lusthaus of happy memory revisited

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  June 28, 2002 at 10:49 AM
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NEW YORK, June 28 (UPI) -- Martha Clarke's triumphant 1986 "Vienna: Lusthaus," an erotic stage work combining dance, music and drama, has been revised and sharpened for an impressive summer revival by the New York Theater Workshop.

Newly titled "Vienna: Lusthaus (Revisited)," the work seems more timely today than it did when its off-Broadway premiere won unanimous rave reviews 16 years ago. Two years before, Clarke had a similar success with her "The Garden of Earthly Delight," inspired by the grotesque 15th-century Hieronymous Bosch painting of the same name.

Clarke has taken painters Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele as her inspiration for "Vienna: Lusthaus," set in the Austrian capital at the turn of the last century when Schiele's painting, "Death and the Maiden," reflected Viennese society's fascination with lust and death. Some of the 32 brief vignettes in the show are ripped raw from the casebooks of Sigmund Freud.

This revised, 70-minute version enacted by a cast of 11 seems to be more ominous than the original, as violence begins to color the abandoned sexual encounters that recall Arthur Schnitzler's dramatic cycle, "Reigen (La Ronde)" depicting the same Viennese era. The text begins to pick up on quotes denigrating to Jews and suggesting an authoritarianism echoed by goose-stepping dance movements by men in military uniforms.

Dreams and reality unite to make "Vienna: Lusthaus" a chilling experience, ending in a light snowfall that adds to the beauty of a ravishing all-white setting of a palatial room with skewed walls furnished with only one white chair. Seen through scrim that makes voyeurs of the audience, the setting successfully achieves Clarke's intention, as stated in the program, of reproducing "the unconscious world of Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century."

The show opens with Vienna's beautiful people waltzing in lovely gowns and smart hussar uniforms and moves on to a scene in which a performer apes the movements of Lipizzaner stallions at Vienna's Spanish Riding School. Sensuality deepens as two women unselfconsciously undress each other and a naked couple rolls across the stage in excited embrace.

There is a scene that suggests skating on the frozen Danube, and another in which a contortionist performer with patent leather dress shoes on his hands enacts sexual liaison, then kicks himself in the face. The fin-de-siecle costumes are constantly being shed or ripped open, on one occasion by a riding whip. An actor threatens his paramour with a pistol.

Stories are told, extracted from texts ranging from Freud and Richard von Krafft-Ebing to letters and diaries of the imperial Hapsburg family, that are hallucinatory and unsettling.

What can you make of the tale told by an opera fan who claims to have seen his nephew fly through the air at a performance of "Fidelio" at the Hofoper and pull out two of the teller's teeth? Or the story about a woman, Aunt Cissi (perhaps the Empress Elizabeth) who wears a face mask made of veal at night and smears her face with crushed fruit?

Casebook histories, no doubt. But they add to the allure and otherworldliness of a show that is as visually beautiful and graceful of pace as any in recent theater history. Clarke, a dancer by trade and choreographer of the show, has been fortunate in having an imaginative production team that includes textwriter Charles L. Mee, composer Richard Peaslee, set and costume designer Robert Israel, and lighting designer Paul Gallo.

Peaslee's score, played by five musicians who sometimes appear on stage, is hauntingly bittersweet and unfailingly melodic and contributes greatly to the success of the production that can be seen at the New York Theater Workshop's East Village theater through Aug. 11.

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