Cutting Ball's 'La Ronde' Is A Production For The Apologists

I’m beginning this review of Cutting Ball Theater’s production of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde under Ariel Craft’s assured direction with a brief bit of bad sociology. If this seems a shameless sideways attack on an otherwise worthy production, then I apologize at the onset. There are many ways one could recommend the Tenderloin Company’s revisionist take on Schnitzler’s wry, nasty, excursion into human depravity. I’ll mention some in passing, but today praise will have to step aside and leave the stage to greater concerns, concerns that burn too brightly to be ignored.

Bad Sociology

We’re living in an age of rules in which people can’t engage in any kind of activity without laying out directives, apologizing for past actions, or explaining that they don’t condone fictional events. Law and the corresponding threat of social banishment hang over every interaction. Why, we might ask, are the Gods so furious? Well, as in all cases with the Gods, it’s the people who run the show and they’re after nothing less than divine justice, a heaven-led assault against our sins and failures. We have forged a fallen world and from now on we must atone for all the wrongs that have led us to this present moment.

What’s clear is that good people have become intolerant of evil, every last bit of it. These new congregants of virtue are challenging the most basic exchanges: the way we talk, how we dress, the food we buy, our weddings and funerals. They insist again and again that they (and often we) engage in public baptisms, rituals of purification that will free us from every past, present, and future accusation of wrongdoing. Only then can we begin the arduous path to a just society — or rather cynically, declare yourself guilty before others find you so.

Now, I get it and have great sympathy for the apologizers. They have seen the world and have found it revolting and you can’t blame them for that. If motives were virtue, they would ascend with the angels. It’s just that in their zeal they lose so much of what makes us human and — to the point here — all the fascination, subtlety, and perversity of real art produced by real people at real moments in time. There are no no true believers in the gutter.

These awful thoughts, because I know I’m kind of corrupt and awful, swirled inside my head and around my brain during Cutting Ball’s pre-show raffle. New artistic director Ariel Craft was prepping the audience for the show and wanted us to know that the company didn’t condone much of what was about to happen on stage. She warned us that the words “prostitute” and “whore” were part of the dismal fiction of La Ronde and that we should instead use “sex worker,” as if we were all running buddies of Patriot’s owner Robert Kraft. I believed she offered counseling of some sort.

I have to say that I long for the days of simple movie ratings, where at a glance you knew what you were in for without further need of explanation or guidance.

Okay, let’s talk about Arthur Schnitzler and the production

Schnitzler isn’t a great playwright, but he’s sharp, fascinating, and worth our time. In league with Chekhov and Freud, he’s another turn-of-the-century doctor (the 19th to 20th variety) who saw a corrupt world and gave it back to us with poison and a smile. He was a sophisticate who knew all the secrets and got a kick out of most of them, especially the bad ones. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is an updating of Schnitzler’s novella Dream Story and the movie’s best moments catch the frosty morality at play in his work.

And despite Cutting Ball’s many warnings, there is a distant morality present in La Ronde, though not one that would ever announce itself as such. The play is a series of sexual liaisons: A hooks up with B; B hooks up with C; C hooks up with D and so on until, say about, ten letters in when we return to A all over again, each coupling a failure if you believe in happily ever after or even a week or two of fun. Everything is distant, including Schnitzler’s judgments, and his accusations of social and personal hypocrisy come in whispers and jokes. You have to sidle up to him and you never know if you’re going to get a gentle hand on the shoulder or a punch to the face. And that’s all part of the fun.

Usually, La Ronde is a large-cast affair, lots of parts but easy to rehearse. In a striking bit of casting, Ella Ruth Francis and Jeunée Simon play all the roles, even switching parts from scene to scene. So instead of Francis (character A) meeting Simon (character B) meeting Francis (character C) meeting Simon (character D) and finally back to Francis (character A) in a daisy change of dalliance. Here Francis plays character A and Simon character B, and then Francis plays character B and Simon character C, and then Francis plays character C and Simon plays character D until the play ends with the actresses having played if not the world at least the play’s approximation of it.

Craft’s shifty rejiggering of each encounter gets at the soulless nature of these characters. They’re just playing roles for a bit of pleasure and if someone gets hurt along the way, well, that’s the game isn’t it. The stage is — ironically, aptly, and wonderfully — in the round for La Ronde, and there are props everywhere hung on the walls where the aisles dead-end. It is as if the idea of improvisation has come to life before us and you think that’s right, that’s the way to bring Schnitzler’s merry-go-round to life.

Theater, the producing of it, is often weighed down by its own expectations — sets, realistic costumes, proper casting, everything except imagination. And so you have to give Cutting Ball a great deal of credit for creating a situation that might demand and engage audiences. The impulse feels right and correct, but the execution is a product of an even worse sociology than what I’ve engaged in at the start of this review.

Francis and Simon are energetic and precise comediennes, but they’re playing clowns not Schnitzler. We could be watching any play and that’s a problem. The production’s bruising style reduces every role to the same role, every line reading to a false and naïve jokiness that misses, buries, and destroys Schnitzler’s sharp, focused, take on individual human beings. La Ronde isn’t scared of human desire and its many cruelties; Cutting Ball’s production grinds that vision to undifferentiated mush and treats that as a form of political enlightenment.

The multiple, energetically produced sex scenes are telling. They feel the product of a degree in acrobatics rather than an expression of will or desire. Or better put, they are more performance style than vision. Nothing is strange or shocking, worthy of our real attention or disgust because everything is the same. We are lectured to, not invited in or allowed to make an assessment of the lives before us. If the company’s concerns are with caring for people—“sex workers, not whores”—then this is a crazy inversion of what’s necessary for true revolutions in thought.

We’re an audience of adults, free to take on the world in our own ways and not cower in fear when presented with bad, amoral, or depraved behavior. We deserve the unadulterated, and not clever concepts that paper over a clear-eyed reckoning with humanity or lack of it. This is a production for children in need of protection and incapable of making any kind of judgment about the world without counseling and emotional Cliff Notes. The triumph of therapy has never been so absolute and crushing.

The Conversation

So much of the conversation of our theater is about seemingly objective judgments . Did the actors perform well? Were the sets stylish? Were people entertained? Okay, yes the Cutting Ball actors performed well, Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s sets were stylish, and probably a good deal of the audience entertained. And yet this is a dispiriting production, sexually explicit and prudish, high-minded but devoid of ideas, and worst of all, uninterested in people, perhaps even scared of them. Yes, obviously terrified of people: what they are and what they will do, whether those people are on stage or in the audience. And those are qualities that the alert, jaundiced, and eternally interested Schnitzler never abandoned— his characters are free and alive, just as the Gods intended us to be.

‘La Ronde’ runs through April 14 at the Exit Theater on Taylor in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.