New York

Martha Clarke, Vienna Lusthaus

The Public Theater

The Lusthaus was a “pleasure pavilion” in turn-of-the-century Vienna’s Prater Park, a libidinous DMZ where primal passions and Hapsburg manners swirled in a Victorian cultural waltz that we now recognize as a seminal source for our own age of discontent. Like the Museum of Modern Art’s “Vienna 1900” show, Martha Clarke and company’s performance was partly inspired by the “Vienna: Dream and Reality” exhibition put on in Vienna last winter. Clarke’s Vienna Lusthaus is a performance complement to the Modern’s scaled-down version of that larger exhibition. Both Clarke and the museum have assembled pertinent, provocative material, a cultural compost ripe to bursting with contemporary implications; but Clarke’s take on Vienna is a drastically reduced version of the Viennese zeitgeist. For Clarke, Vienna circa 1900 equals sex and death, period, and her choreographed dance drama hammers this elementary point home with a neo-Teutonic single-mindedness. In this Lusthaus, every gesture goes simultaneously for the jugular and the pubis. Yet the performance is only “about” those primal emotions, just as a graduate thesis is “about” its subject. This Cliff’s Notes of a dance-theater work outlines the basic idea and then fills in the general picture, but it does so dispassionately, conveying little of the Eros and Thanatos of its chosen theme.

Acted out in movement and static tableaux by an exceptionally adroit group of dancers and actors (who are billed as cocreators), Vienna Lusthaus aspires to a dream-play structure in its series of imagistic vignettes. However, it proceeds in such a brisk, no-nonsense manner, and with the sex-and-death angle so heavily underlined, that nothing very dreamlike—a sense of distorted time, events that are mysteriously elusive—can develop. Perhaps the most deadening element in this potentially hypnotic landscape is the overly didactic text, a verbal collage cobbled together with quotes from Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arthur Schnitzler, et al. None of the speakers are identified, and all remarks are edited to comment on. . .sex and death. This overdetermined verbiage is made even more portentous by its oratorical delivery, adding yet another layer of lugubriousness to its leaden weight. The staging relies on equally obvious metaphors: men wear soldiers’ uniforms (death) and women are often clothed in Victorian underwear (sex), the set is a white room with skewed angles (something’s "of” about Vienna), and a gauzy scrim hangs between the audience and the action (a haze of memory separates us . . . , etc.).

Even the occasional nudity, a rarity in commercial performance these days, comes off as self-consciously Meaningful. Though a case could be argued that its coyness represents Viennese repression, that the carefully shielded genitals, constant back views, and the accompanying low lighting illustrate confused sexuality, Clarke’s Vienna avoids the more disturbing aspects of the subject, say, any reference to Egon Schiele’s protopornographic nude displays. Like its rote rendering of sexual combinations—young man with older woman, woman with woman, man stroking woman with a whip—Vienna Lusthaus reduces a multifaceted cultural phenomena to a cliche, creating a pleasureless erotic play with all the emotional charge of a lecture demonstration.

John Howell