the space and resources at their disposal are limited, the Shotgun Players
have worked well with what they have. With a little paint and a lot of
imagination, set designer Michael Frassinelli has conjured up the lovely,
whimsical world of the turn-of-the-century drawing rooms in which Dalliance
takes place. Meanwhile, director Katie Bales makes the modesty of the
sets the premise of some self-effacing jokes in the play. Using the skimpiness
of the scenery to her advantage, she toys with the already blurry line
between the reality of the drama company and the fantasy created onstage.
Tom Stoppard adapted Arthur Schnitzler's 1896 debut Leibelei for
a centennial run in London, he hardly bowed down respectfully in front
of the script; in fact, he twisted it to his own uses, turning the play
and its themes inside out for the final few scenes. I wish director Katie
Bales, in her otherwise excellent staging for the Shotgun Players, had
shown a little more of the same disrespect. The show is engrossing throughout,
but I think it would have worked much better in an ahistorical setting,
without the accents - which here are so uneven and distracting that it's
hard to believe Bales has kept them in. And when you get to the point
where Stoppard begins to mess with the narrative, the effect is tartling;
everything, including Bales' direction, is sharpened, and you realize
that more of that kind of thinking could have done wonders. As the womanizer
Theo, Patrick Dooley displays some of the irreverence I'm talking about,
and set designer Michael Frassinelli has captured it in physical form,
but the rest of the actors seem more dedicated to Shnitzler's Women Who
Love Too Much script than Stoppard's keen reworking."
In 1896 libertine Austrian Arthur Schnitzel shocked domestic middle-classers by playfully debasing human interaction in his play Liebelei (sometimes translated as "Light o' My Life"). In the late '80s British director Tom Stoppard renamed the play Dalliance, cranked up its playfulness, added an avant-garde stylistic self-consciousness, and altered the nomenclature: fraulein, for example, became "popsie." Now Shotgun Players director Katie Bales takes up the play, adding to it a dash more charm and a tad more perversity.
The setting is fin de siecle Vienna, where on-the-go Theodore (Patrick Dooley) tries to fish ex-dragoon Fritz (Paul Vincent Black) out of a metaphysical quagmire. Unlike Theo, who calls a "mink" a "mink" and considers them trophies to be won, Fritz can't stop sighing for the unavailables. Theo prescribes wine and women. Enter demimonde-ish Mizi (Sandie Armstrong) and the blue-eyed little innocent Christine (Marin Van Young). Product of a phallocentric world, Mizi confounds Theo with her pink low-cut pinafore, hard-to-get attitude, and trenchant talk. "We want to be dragooned," she announces. Christine's too sticky for Fritz's taste, but her persistent feel-sorry-for-me tactics break down his emotional reserve. The arrival of a gentleman (Michael Storm) brings startling news, eventually churning up dark secrets that lead to intimations of everyone's fragile mortality.
Under Bales' direction, and with some excellent acting, Dalliance is about more than carnality. Occasional pinches remind us that a play is a play, and reality -- well, reality. The audience is not allowed to escape into illusion. The characters speak in a transnational pastiche of Scottish, Irish, and West Coast U.S. dialects, and the script brandishes a Pirandello-esque self-reflexivity and various anachronisms. During a neat scene-switch from Christina's apartment to the beginning of a play-within-a-play, Fritz remains center stage; "Are you sure I've never been here before?" he asks. At another point, a character describes a bottle of wine to be from "mille neuf cent soixante-neuf."
Bales et al. assume they've got an audience already familiar with such metadramatic modes. Otherwise the characters would have to teach the audience how to understand the play -- which occasionally Bales' direction seems reluctant to do. Christine, for example, is a plainly earnest character here; the production's strokes aren't broad enough to paint her as what she really is, a parody of the manipulatrix. She steps out of the piece's overall playful feel, declaring at the end that Theo is a "shitbucket." But then again, maybe that's the point. People, even in the invented world of plays, are too complex to classify.
The Shotgun Players have a reputation for making the most of limitations. Proudly billing themselves as "the theater company in a pizzeria basement" (La Val's Subterranean Theater in Berkeley), this shoestring ensemble of amateurs has been making vibrant theater for five years with whatever they have been able to beg, borrow, or steal. Fortunately they have a wealth of talent, and in Dalliance, Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's Liebelei, they offer tremendously juicy fun. This incisive comedy about men's and women's strikingly different approaches to love is vintage Schnitzler. Fritz, an aristocratic Viennese man-about-town, is forced to confront the downside of his frivolous affairs when the working-class Christine genuinely falls in love with him. Fritz's friend Theo and Theo's girlfriend, Mizi, try to help the couple put the affair in perspective, but Christine is not letting go, and despite himself Fritz begins to be pulled in. Schnitzler's characters are often wearily self-conscious, and here they weigh their very real emotional games and self-delusions against the fairy-tale world of operetta, a recurrent motif that is both embraced and inverted by the end of the play. This tasty confection is sweetened with Stoppard's sharp verbal wit, and Schnitzler provides some weight to the fluffy proceedings with his usual dark counterbalance: the threat of mortality. A cuckolded husband has challenged Fritz to a duel, and Fritz is a demonstrably lousy shot. Director Katie Bales has mounted her lively, beautifully timed staging in a playing area no larger than a pepperoni slice, and she doesn't let her actors miss a single thread of the play's tangled sexual and emotional web. Paul Vincent Black's conflicted playboy Fritz and Sandie Armstrong's sensual, clear-eyed Mizi are particularly fine performances from the capable cast. At the heart of the play is the naive Christine's brutal education in the ways of love, but unfortunately Marin Van Young's portrayal, while proficient, fails to capture the extremes of Christine's tender innocence or her self-righteous fury at the play's climax. With the exception of Lisa Solomon's lovely costumes, the production values are joyfully those of community theater. Michael Frassinelli's set is ingeniously flexible, finding opportunities in every available square inch, but Bales also manages to extract both humor and thematic resonance from its limitations. Whenever a character tries to replace a real book on a trompe l'oeil bookshelf or switch on a painted wall sconce, the collision between illusion and reality central to the play gets another twist. The Shotgun Players prove it doesn't take beaucoup bucks to breathe life into a hundred-year-old play, just vision and energy and a pizzeria willing to take a chance. Despite their tiny dance floor, the company waltzes gracefully through Schnitzler's and Stoppard's Viennese schlag while also discovering the razor blades beneath the frothy surface.