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Monday, 20 February 2012 16:32

Changing partners: 'Hello Again' at Webster Conservatory

Written by Steve Callahan
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All cultures have a dance like this. In French it’s called ”la ronde”, in German “der Reigen”. In English it’s a “round dance”—that graceful swirling changing of partners around a circle until at last one finds oneself saying, “Hello Again.”

It’s this title, "Hello Again", that Michael John LaChiusa chooses for his musical adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s play, "La Ronde". It’s running at the Webster Conservatory, and it’s a very fine production indeed.

La Ronde was written in Vienna in 1897, and Schnitzler never intended it for actual production. In it he presents ten characters in ten sexual vignettes: the Whore and the Soldier, the Soldier and the Maid, the Maid and the Young Gentleman, etc.—each one a slight step up the social scale—until at the end we find the Count together with the very same Whore we met in scene one.

Fin de siècle theatre just wasn’t ready for this lovely daisy-chain of changing sexual partners. A 1920 production in Hungary caused a scandal and the actors were prosecuted, so the author forbade any further production in Europe. It wasn’t staged there again until 1986!

There has been a flood of adaptations of "La Ronde": seven plays (one gay), two musicals (one gay) and twelve films.

"Hello Again" is really quite faithful to the original. LaChiusa does make two of the ten couplings homosexual ones—which would have landed Schnitzler in jail in imperial Vienna had he tried it; but now it’s appropriate to do that, and it’s absolutely no artistic offense to the work. Also, in Schnitzler the sex takes place discreetly off-stage, but in "Hello Again" it’s all right there before your eyes—simulated, but enthusiastic.

One change might be confusing unless you’re forewarned: LaChiusa plays fast and loose with time. Whereas La Ronde takes place in a very few days in Vienna, "Hello Again" bounces randomly among the decades of the twentieth century. A scene on the Titanic is followed by one in a rocking disco club, which is followed by a scene in the ‘20’s with a flickery silent-movie style. Once accepted, this conceit actually benefits the theme; Schnitzler shows that sexual need and the sexual bargain are common to all social classes; LaChiusa suggests that they are common to all times.

The setting is a beautiful art gallery, the walls displaying ten iconic modern paintings—by Wyeth, Hopper, Rockwell and others. At the end of each vignette the light lingers on one of these that is somehow appropriate to the scene.

Among this fine cast I’ll just mention a few who especially captured my admiration and my eye. My “Pure Excitement” award goes to Becca Andrews who as a very sexy nurse could have stepped right out of one of those doctor sketches from burlesque. Clad in stockings, garter-belt and a terminally short-skirted uniform she has that rare slight lovely figure that can flamboyantly wear such things. She strips (as much as a nice young lady should be expected to strip), she kinkily mock-ravishes her young partner, and then she strips off a significant bit more. Such energy! Such bold bravery!

Kurt Hellerich gets the gold for “Subtlety and Depth” as the kid from the streets who lets himself be seduced by the millionaire on the Titanic. With the lithe, compact beauty of a young Joel Gray he’s totally committed to every second of his scenes, and totally believable.

For “Beauty and Empathy” I’ll give the nod to Sarah Cline. As the patriotic Whore who gives her wares free to any soldier the lovely Miss Cline perfectly conveys the sensitivity—indeed the wisdom of this woman of the streets—the only person in the play who isn’t trying to get something with sex. (Well, perhaps a few dollars . . .) It’s clear to us that all those folks above her in society are, in fact, her moral inferiors. She’s the only character the author gives an actual name; it’s Leocadia, the name of an early Christian martyr. It’s almost a badge, marking her as the most successfully human of them all.

The music throughout is lovely, though there’s nothing you’ll leave the theatre whistling. A musical high point is the gorgeous duet between Kurt Hellerich and T. Eric Morris as the Writer.

There is desperate sex in a cinema, there’s a white mink over sexy lingerie, there’s a dreamy, distracted searching for self in flagrante delicto. In all these things I believe Schnitzler is showing us that whatever sex is it’s not a guarantee of love, let alone of happiness. Nor is it necessarily an exit from loneliness. (Loneliness was an early working title for La Ronde.)

Director David Caldwell has created a memorable evening in "Hello Again". It plays at the Webster Conservatory through February 26.

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