Arthur Schnitzler, the unjustly neglected chronicler of Viennese fin de siècle sexual mores, receives some well-deserved attention thanks to a new production of his play Anatol by the great Aurora Theatre Company. Schnitzler was friendly with Freud in the latter part of his life (both were Jewish and doctors), and they shared a fascination with the human psyche and the conflict between sexual behavior and conventional morality.
Schnitzler is most famous for La Ronde, (originally published in German in 1903 as Reigen, but more commonly called by its French name due to Max Ophuls’ famous movie adaptation), a theatrical rondel in 10 scenes portraying sex as the force that transcends class barriers and explodes hidebound conceptions of virtue. It was famously condemned and couldn’t be performed in many countries for years. Schnitzler is now probably more famous in the English-speaking world as the author of Dream Story (Traumnovelle in German), the novella that Stanley Kubrick adapted for his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. (Don’t judge Schnitzler by the moribund, enervating tableaux not-so-vivants that Kubrick brought to the screen.)
Anatol was initially published piecemeal in short scenes, but released in its full, seven-scene length in 1892. In a world-premiere translation by Schnitzler scholar Margret Schaefer, the Aurora presents six of those scenes in a slightly different order. (A program note mentions that Schnitzler wrote nine Anatol scenes, but I was not able to find any confirmation of this—the English translations I was able to glance at all have seven scenes.) The omission of “Agony,” the usual penultimate scene, emphasizes the comic in this mounting, but rue and regret still echo throughout the evening.
The title character is clearly modeled on Schnitzler himself: Anatol professes to believe in love, but flits from one tryst to another, always disappointed, never fully trusting the women he’s sleeping with, using that mistrust to disguise his own self-loathing. However, Anatol the play is a comedy of manners and several of the scenes are farcical, so the terrific Aurora cast and the wonderful direction by Aurora co-founder and artistic director emerita Barbara Oliver create a hilarious and exceedingly entertaining evening of theater, without slighting the melancholy inherent in Anatol’s exploits. (During this production, I was struck by the fact that Anatol is clearly a precursor to TV’s Frasier, a show which, at its best, juggled the same strains of farce, high comedy, romance, and melancholy.)
Anatol is a literary descendant of Don Juan, the seducer who aims to prove all women unworthy through the very act of seduction. He appears in all six of the vignettes and is almost never offstage. His friend Max is his foil, his confidant, his best friend, and also the person most capable of seeing through his self-justifications and fabrications. Max appears in four of the six scenes, and each scene features a different woman: a new conquest, two figures from the past, a lover no longer beloved, a fiancée, and a mistake. Oliver uses one actress to portray all of these roles, a strategy I was leery of. You need to see a parade of different women, of different types, to understand the energy and desperation of Anatol’s quixotic search for love. Could one actress convey these disparate types of women?
Well, the right actress can, and that actress is Delia MacDougall. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen MacDougall in a play, and I had half-forgotten how ferociously talented she is. Here, each of her six women is absolutely distinct. She physicalizes and vocalizes each one completely, transforming herself with each new incarnation. As a willing hypnosis subject, whom Anatol hopes to bewitch into telling him the truth of her feelings for him, she’s breezy and delightful, possessing the self-confidence of youth. As Bianca the circus performer, she brandishes a Russian accent, purring with mock dismay when Max upbraids her for not recognizing Anatol. Her bearing is still and proud as the married woman Anatol runs into while shopping on Christmas Eve. Having had an affair with Anatol in the past (though we don’t know how far it went), she listens to Anatol describe his current flame while gently needling him. “I know your tastes,” she says, spitting off the end of “tastes.” And in a tender moment, she and Anatol almost kiss, but she breaks it off, knowing that such pleasures are in the past for her. There’s a gorgeous moment when she, in a generous final gesture, hands over to Anatol the bright orange hothouse tulips she’s been carrying around with her packages, a gift for his new paramour.
The tulips have a warm glow, a symbol of the passion she’s bequeathing to this new woman. (Krista Smith’s lighting and the properties design, credited to both Mia Baxter and Seren Helday are exquisite throughout.) This scene is Oliver’s best bit of direction: The blocking perfectly portrays an aimless winter’s stroll despite the tiny space of the Aurora stage, and the subtle shifts of mood are almost heartbreaking.
MacDougall’s Annie, a dancer with the Opera who’s decided to break up over supper with Anatol, carries a head that’s not quite attached to her body. It bobbles around merrily as she gobbles down oysters, dismissing Anatol unconcernedly, prattling in her sloshy diction. This amazing actress imbues Emilie, a fiancée who’s willing to put up with Anatol’s incessant tests of her love, but only to a certain point, with both a swooning romance and a shocking acquisitiveness. And as the furious Ilona, who’s had the misfortune to spend the night with Anatol at a most inopportune time, MacDougall is hilarious, wreaking havoc on his well-appointed apartment.
When you read the play, you may think of Anatol as slim and elegant, sort of like Algernon or Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest. Actor Mike Ryan is stout, possesses thinning hair, and sports a walrus-y mustache. Yet he possesses impeccable diction and uses his body expressively. When he hears something shocking from Max, his body turns from the hips, his neck held stiff, and he leans slightly backwards, the very definition of “reeling.” He shifts from outrage to cunning to earnestness within the confines of a single line. Ryan uses emphasis in surprising ways, such as accenting the second syllable of the name “Cora,” to underscore comically the infatuation that he mistakes for love. He’s a force of both nature and intellect, and you can see why he fascinates these women. He’s amazing at the difficult job of showing us Anatol’s self-deception, but letting us know that on a deeper level, Anatol is aware of his own games. He can con anyone, even himself, and it’s his belief in these cons that makes him so intriguing.
As Max, Tim Kniffin is slim and elegant, with an aquiline nose and a well-cut head of gray hair, immaculately put together. He’s slightly older than Anatol, which puts him at a slight remove from the younger man’s shenanigans. He’s clearheaded in his judgments, amused by his friend’s antics, but he also clearly knows whose side he’s on, even avenging Anatol when one old flame confesses that Anatol meant nowhere near as much to her as she to him. As the sly observer, Kniffin’s movements are and stiller, less animated than Ryan’s, and it’s perfect for the character. Wiley Naman Stasser portrays Franz, Anatol’s manservant, and a waiter at the Sacher Hotel (whose famous torte makes an appearance), with a proud, upright bearing, weathering Anatol’s momentary tantrums and conspiring in his amorous plots with aplomb.
Schaeffer’s translation seems natural and unforced, modern, yet period-appropriate. Only one phrase stuck out for me, when Max describes one of the women as “…a revenging fury who wants to avenge herself on all of us.” The repetition of the “-venge” root is jarring. (Frank Marcus translates the line as “…a figure from classical tragedy. One who tried to avenge her whole sex,” which seems more successful to me.)
Anna Oliver’s costumes are gorgeous and ingenious, especially in MacDougall’s case. A blood red skirt becomes a winter coat, an evening gown, and a chorus girl’s after-theater ensemble. The set, by John Iacovelli, features a rotating portal that enables rapid scene changes, shifting from Anatol’s blue drawing room with a bay window, to Max’s red den, to an exterior shop window, or a hotel’s private dining room. (I am curious about the decision to make Anatol’s room blue and Max’s red. It seems that reversing that scheme would better suit their characters.)
The show is perfectly calibrated by director Oliver, shifting seamlessly from farce to gentle sorrow, from humorous artifice to art, getting at the evanescence, the elusiveness, of love. The Aurora’s production of Anatol tells us that love can evaporate under the heat of observation and analysis, but knows that we can’t help looking anyway.
Anatol plays from now until May 13 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. For more information, call 510-843-4822 or visit http://www.auroratheatre.org.