Arthur Schnitzler’s play “Reigen,” a merry-go-round of sexual encounters, was banned by a Berlin court after its 1920 premiere. Max Ophuls’s 1950 film version, “La Ronde,” fared no better: It was kept from U.S. shores for four years by the New York State censors.
“La Ronde du Carre” (Squaring the Circle), Dimitris Dimitriadis’s version of Schnitzler’s classic, hasn’t spurred the authorities into action. At the second performance, which I saw, only some elderly couples left in protest, perhaps dismayed by the loose language and frontal nudity.
Although Dimitriadis wrote his play in Greek, the staging of the French translation at Paris’s Theatre de l’Odeon is a world premiere.
In “Reigen,” the 10 characters remain nameless; after each episode, one of the two lovers has sex with another partner. In “La Ronde du Carre,” the characters bear the names of colors; three of the eight actors appear in more than one episode.
The difference between the two plays is that Schnitzler’s lovers, though no models of fidelity, find sexual fulfillment. Dimitriadis’s characters are all unhappy. He seems to share August Strindberg’s bleak view of intimate relationships, without the Swede’s virulent misogyny.
In the first scene, Verte returns to her husband Vert, whom she left two years earlier “to find love, freedom, joy.” Instead, she fell on hard times and even had to sell her body to survive. Vert is willing to take her back, yet warns her: “Your life will be a permanent punishment.”
In the second episode, Cielle and her boyfriend Ciel are seeing Noir, a psychoanalyst: They are madly in love, explains the loquacious girl. They have the same tastes in music, theater, the movies, yet, at the critical moment, Ciel (who remains silent) is unable to perform. Noir concludes that Ciel must be a closeted queen and offers himself as his king.
Next, Violette tells her husband that she is cheating on him with Gris, his best friend. When she tries to talk Gris into marrying her, she is rebuffed.
In the last scene, two gays obsessed with the same young man decide to strangle him and cut him up so that each can keep one half all for himself.
These trivial, sinister and grotesque episodes are the four themes the playwright then varies. The exposition, as it would be called in a sonata, is followed by a condensed version of the same scene, then by others in which the power balance between the duos and trios subtly shifts.
In the increasingly frantic finale, the eight actors crawl up and slip off an inclined plane, murmuring, then shouting: “Continue!” -- a metaphor for the Sisyphean task of getting a grip on our love lives.
Fortunately, director Giorgio Barberio Corsetti doesn’t overload the play with ponderous significance. He presents it as what it is, an exercise in virtuoso stagecraft. Cristian Taraborrelli’s minimalist sets are a model of elegance.
Among the cast, Anne Alvaro as the repentant wife and Cecile Bournay as the frustrated girlfriend of a closeted homosexual stand out. Rating: ***.
“La Ronde du Carre” runs through June 12. Information: http://www.theatre-odeon.fr/en.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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