Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Review: (Toronto) La Ronde

Brandon McGibbon, Grace Lynn Kung and Mike Ross (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Socio-Sexual Edgeplay
Soulpepper runs Schnitzler's genital relay
by Gregory Bunker

Soulpepper’s La Ronde is a not-quite-convincing cobbling together of Torontonians’ sex lives. The original Arthur Schnitzler play was scandalous in its day for its display of sexual relationships across the rigid class lines of late 19th century Germany. Jason Sherman’s modern-day adaptation is downright wholesome in comparison. Set downtown, we are in a different place and time—especially for conversations of a sexual nature—and a uniquely Torontonian update should not only show us how times have changed but also expose us to how times are changing. It was, after all, the cultural context of the original play that made it so deliciously dirty at the time. Here, Schnitzler’s template of crossing class structure with socio-sexual edgeplay seems difficult to transpose onto the cultural milieu of sexual Toronto.

Still, brazen exposure is what this play is all about, and in the literal sense, it delivers.

In execution, the play is excellent. The acting is superb, with Brenda Robbins (Eve) and Maev Beaty (Isobel) as particular standouts. Given some of the awkward plotlines, the only truly confusing moment was interpreting what “polishing the silver” meant. (I think it meant polishing the silver.) The music and sound effects are spot-on if a little loud (Thomas Ryder Payne), and Lorenzo Savoini provides a flexible set that seamlessly incorporates video—a  rare feat, and something that the story could have benefitted from more.

Sherman’s adaptation is a slave to the structure of its original: it is a sort of sexual relay where each character appears in two consecutive scenes in order to pass on the narrative torch—for a total of ten pairings. This worked for breaking down the barriers between strict social classes in Europe 100 years ago, but exposing inappropriate sexual dalliances nowadays is harder to achieve without an explicit social structure to break and with today’s more open attitudes towards sex. The closest we come to understanding such classes is making associations between well-known Toronto neighbourhoods where these encounters occur. But even then, these encounters are not scandalous, and at times they are a reach. The commitment to so many stories makes a common theme important to emphasize, but only a diversity of sexual behaviours is showcased; none of it is particularly shocking or new. Every time a sexual relationship comes to ruins, the audience is spared its messiness and shuffled on to the next salacious round. Still, brazen exposure is what this play is all about, and in the literal sense, it delivers.

There is lots of nudity. Kudos to the actors for bravely taking on this aspect of their roles. Nearly the entire cast becomes naked at some point, and the acting gets quite physical. In the time of Schnitzler this would have been galling, but today it feels gratuitous because those lines have blurred and moved further away. While there is some shock value to the amount of nudity in the show, its consequence does not appear significant. For example, there are a few moments early on when an interesting technology theme (cell phone cameras, YouTube) appears to be emerging, but it remains peripheral throughout. Too bad: an intriguing soliloquy on the effects of technology on today’s sexual relationships by ED-afflicted Teddy (Mike Ross) had grabbed the audience’s attention just in time for intermission, and that theme, and relationship, was nearly forgotten thereafter. 

Sadly for Soulpepper and Toronto, this play is flirting with irrelevance. The original structure of La Ronde mirrored the structure of society at the time, but here the structure feels forced. A connecting theme is further lost by an exhaustive checklist of sexual behaviours that appears to be ticked off throughout the play. Overall, character development is sacrificed along with a strong narrative and theme. There are many ways sex in present-day Toronto could be exposed, and some are presented here, but none in the spirit of the original. It is more homage than an update capable of shaking up our 21st-century sexuality. There is lots of great, naked acting and effects, but this play won’t impregnate your mind with anything new.

La Ronde runs to May 4 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.
Two-and-a-half hours with one 20-minute intermission.

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