In 1897, Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler wrote a play so scandalous that at first he only shared it among his friends. It wasn’t publicly staged until 1920 and, unsurprisingly, it caused an uproar. The ruffled feathers had to do with La Ronde‘s frank discussion of sexual relationships—in particular, those between members of different social classes. But while the acts themselves were originally left up to the audience’s imagination, Soulpepper Theatre’s current, modernized adaptation goes all the way with its sex scenes.
La Ronde is the story of ten different characters, all of whom are somehow linked through sexual encounters. A prostitute and a veteran open the play. The veteran goes to see a female refugee and proposes. Then, she sees the son of the household she works for, he sees his biology professor, and so on until the play comes full circle. Virtually every character fully disrobes at some point, and there’s onstage humping, groping, fellatio, whipping, masturbation, and more. Soulpepper is known for producing beautiful, well-performed, classic pieces of theatre, and so this racy new direction will undoubtedly get audiences a little hot under their white collars. To modern viewers, though, it’s in no way as outrageous as the original 1920 production would have been at the time.
Jason Sherman, who wrote Soulpepper’s adaptation of the play, adds more than just skin. He also tries to shock (or depress?) viewers by showing them sexual encounters that are based solely on financial exchange, power, reproduction, or insecurity. Sherman suggests that today’s hookup culture—or as the married lawyer Teddy (Mike Ross) puts it, “sex without”—is the result of our fascination with technology. References to texts, sexts, YouTube, in vitro fertilization, smartphones, and globalization are vital to this updated script.
Alan Dilworth, a newcomer to Soulpepper, provides direction that is clean and cutting, especially when it plays with the fourth wall. It’s a shame, though, that “updating” the play seems to mean adding in images of iPhones and social media whenever possible. There are many, many more ways to bring Schnitzler’s idea into 2013—perhaps, by writing a female character that isn’t either a rape victim, a whore, a girl scorned by her sugar daddy, or a woman desperate to be a mother. Or perhaps, by not squirming away from the smallest hint of a homosexual experience.
It’s great for Soulpepper to challenge its audience with taboo subjects, but it needs to be for the right reasons, with the right message. While La Ronde features some nice performances, especially in a scene between Ross’s Freddy and his wife Isobel (played by Maev Beaty, a foolproof casting choice), the script makes a few too many missteps.