Arts & Events

THEATER REVIEW: 'Anatol' at the Aurora

By Ken Bullock
Thursday April 26, 2012 - 04:55:00 PM

No matter what mood the title character of Arthur Schnitzler's 1893 play 'Anatol' finds himself in, he's bound, by the end of the scene, to express the opposite. Soaring to imagined romantic heights, Anatol plunges down to the depths—and plumbs them as vigorously as he exalted his former ecstasy. Carried away by his own passion, he's immediately overcome by jealousy, sure his lovers have deceived him, all the while plotting his next affair, or suddenly taking advantage of an amorous possibility that arises in the midst of his agonies of doubt and rejection, usually just imagined. 

Schnitzler was praised personally by Freud, who declared himself an ardent fan of the playwright's social satire of the brisk erotic commerce of Vienna's middle classes. Best-known of the plays is 'La Ronde,' a round dance (or daisy chain) of liaisons, not performed in German-language theaters for 20 years after its publication in 1900, and thereafter dogged for decades by the result of legal questions as to its morality, immortalized by Max Ophuls' great 1950 film of it. 

Like 'La Ronde,' 'Anatol' is a string of scenes, kind of dedicated one acts, the Aurora production staging six of nine. In some ways it's like turning a geometric figure around to gaze at its different facets, a mode of development through mood, dynamics (subtle contrasts in similar situations are important) and correspondence, connecting the scenes in different ways they can build on each other. 

Anatol himself is a little like Kierkegaard's protagonist narrator of "The Diary of a Seducer" from 'Either/Or,' a seducer so committed to knowing and savoring each nuance of his own knowledge of seduction, he's farther and farther removed from fulfillment. Anatol's more obtuse, if no less narcissistic, but every bit as funny, in the style of romantic farce, though the doors only slam a little bit in Schnitzler's play. 

Barbara Oliver, Aurora's co-founder, directed Mike Ryan as Anatol, who plays the mock hero's self-absorption and mood shifts to the hilt, showing a fine vocal range and good physical comedy technique—some particularly funny comedic "walks," something Kierkegaard, himself once an aspiring playwright, wrote about in admiration ... As Anatol's friend, foil, gadfly—and finally victim—Tim Kniffin is delightful as best friend Max, regarding his confidante's foibles with arched eyebrow and sometimes acid rejoinder, until he's caught up in Anatol's self-spun web, sharing a little of the hysteria, a cognate for the audience's own gales of laughter. 

But the tour-de-force of the show is Delia MacDougall's psychological quick-change act of portraying all six female characters, from Anatol's barely more than teenage girlfriend to a former mature lover who's a wife and mother, from a Russian circus artiste (who's all but forgotten him) to a gluttonous ballet dancer (who aces him at his own game of break-up). MacDougall hits the nail on the head, over and over, often sending the spectators into fits of laughter, but capable of stirring a sense of melancholy and regret, too, as in the unusual mood evoked in the scene of a chance encounter while shopping late on Christmas Eve ... 

Several reviews of the show have carped at the lack of character devlopment in Anatol, as if the string of scenes, some almost like sketches, added up to a psychological portrait, in the way of that perennial Hollywood cliche' of "characters we can care about." But as Freud said to Schnitzler, what's discovered here by artistic intuition probes as deep into social mores and obsessions with seemingly careless deftness as research discovers with plodding progress. A pattern is outlined, becomes plain as a kind of silhouette cut out from the figures of the play and its repetitions and variations. Like emotional shadowplay—and this is truly a "play" in every sense—the truth of the matter's impressed on the audience, drawn out of it, through laughter and recognition—and a little bit of lingering reflection. 

One critic commented that 'Anatol' is, perhaps, an immature play. But 'La Ronde,' usually called Schnitzler's masterpiece, was written less than five years after 'Anatol' was. Maybe a case could be made for a more stylized production; it's a play that draws from life—and very specific times—but which, like much comedy and humor, isn't realized realistically in particular. Its simultaneous dramatic transparence and subtlety is apparent in the first scene, where Anatol's induced to hypnotize his young mistress to find out if she's unfaithful, which of course he is, himself ... The upshot, like Pirandello's definition of humor, shows us what's really there instead of what we expect to be. 

Aurora has an immensely enjoyable, rarely staged show on its boards right now, a farce-like comedy worthy of discussion—but a discussion with much laughter. 

2081 Addison (near Shattuck). Tuesday through Sunday, different times. $30-$48. 843-4822;