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La Ronde
(Let’s Get it On)

Directed by Anna Kohler

April 7–9 and 13–15, 2011

Kresge Little Theater

During the past two weeks, MIT Theater Arts and Dramashop presented La Ronde (Let’s Get it On), an adaptation of the original play by Austrian author and dramatist Arthur Schnitzler. It was translated and directed for the MIT community by Anna C. Kohler, MIT Senior Lecturer in Theater Arts.

La Ronde explores the sexual morality of the early years of the 20th century by displaying a series of sexual encounters between archetypal characters across all classes of society, showing that sexual desire is a major part of human nature. Schnitzler finished La Ronde in 1900, but the play was not publicly performed before 1920 due to its content; even then, the work caused major controversy in Europe when first released. However, this controversy also strongly contributed to the play’s popularity. Sigmund Freud was a famous supporter of the work, expressing his approval in letters to the playwright — even calling Schnitzler his literary doppelganger. Since then, La Ronde has been adapted numerous times.

Each scene in Schnitzler’s original work features a female and male character who are about to have intercourse; consecutive scenes are interlocked by sharing one of the two lovers. The play starts with an encounter between a prostitute and a soldier, then moves on to a scene with the soldier and a parlor maid, an encounter with the parlor maid and a young gentleman, and so forth, passing through all social classes until the circle is closed by an encounter between a count and the prostitute.

Kohler refreshed the original play in several ways to make it relevant for the 21st century and the MIT community. She also spiced it up by adding multimedia elements and a new meta-plot that takes place on the Institute campus. Kohler replaced the 19th century archetypes with 21st century ones to make the play more relatable; for instance, the soldier was replaced with a quarterback, and the parlor maid with an au pair. But Kohler did much more than just modernize the individual scenes and characters.

Part of Kohler’s transformation of La Ronde into a multimedia experience included integrating video-recorded performances directly into the play, blurring the boundaries between film and theatre. One of the last scenes of the play is an encounter between the theater diva Tallulah (performed by male Jesse D. Triplett ’13) and plantation owner Baroni (Gary Wilmes). Wilmes’ facial expressions and voice were pre-recorded and directly projected onto a small screen attached to the face of Illan F. Halpern ’14 during the play. Halpern — performing nearly blind due to the screen — contributed excellently to the character with gestures and movements that supported the projection.

Kohler also added video-recorded performances of scenes that were not part of the original play to give La Ronde an MIT twist. Her version of La Ronde alternates between adapted scenes from the original Schnitzler play and short video-recorded scenes that take place on the Institute campus. The recorded scenes show two college students (played by Lindsay C. Stone ’13 and Halpern) making their way across campus. From the beginning they are clearly attracted to each other, but as they make their way across campus, they encounter other students and situations that leave them drifting away into the fantasy world of their desires, working against their original attraction. Their feelings and expectations of each other seem to change constantly. Kohler uses this meta-plot to add an interpretation of Schnitzler’s play in the framework of the 21st century. She wants us to “acknowledge that there are dreams and fantasies that need to be fulfilled on a physical level.” This need, she says, is very important in times when technological progress has the tendency to keep people apart. “If we don’t, we would lose what makes us essentially human,” she adds.

The pre-recorded scenes add a more reflective side to La Ronde, contrasting with the rest of the adaptation, which is more comedic and incredibly entertaining to watch. It is interesting that, after a century and a couple of sexual revolutions, a play that was originally highly controversial can easily be performed as a comedy today. For instance, when two characters have intercourse, the lights go out, and the actual sex is represented by short pop music pieces adapted to the individual situations. This staging triggered many laughs from the audience.

The MIT version of La Ronde turned out very well. The simple but effective set design and costumes give the play a modern touch, strongly contributing to the overall atmosphere without being distracting. Overall, the multimedia elements were very well integrated. The short film screenings covered the time that was required to convert the stage between scenes.

The play drew the majority of its energy from its incredible actors. They made the production extremely enjoyable to watch. It usually takes actors a lot of commitment to their characters to play scenes involving sexual intercourse truthfully. In the case of La Ronde, every single one of the ten scenes has this challenge, but the fantastic cast presented a perfect performance. The actors filled their characters with life and passion, making the play very fun for the audience. Kohler’s La Ronde was a great contribution to MIT’s cultural scene and demonstrated the incredible acting potential of the Institute’s students.