What else can be done with sex on the stage? Over the years, former “codes” about and attitudes towards sex have slowly fallen away or changed, leaving the modern stage an open playground for whatever sort of coupling a theater company or director can imagine. It seems nothing can generate a reaction of interest or wonder concerning sex anymore. Werner Schwab's The Round of Pleasure , based on Arthur Schnitzler's scandalous, banned (in 1920) play La Ronde , takes sex to a new place, a place where sex becomes almost irrelevant. La Ronde was composed of ten scenes, in which five men and five women swapped sexual partners, passing syphilis to each other. The structure of The Round of Pleasure mimics that of its precursor, although syphilis is gone, replaced by a chunky language and a sense of divorce, both among the ten characters and ultimately in the audience. The characters in Schwab's play wear either screw off or otherwise detachable sex organs. Occasionally, two characters will have sex while standing on opposite ends of the stage, each quaking and shaking in such a way that, divorced from the act associated with it, their actions become unnerving. The disembodied, dislocated couplings provide a backdrop for a play that shakes the conventions of its society, without rising to the point of critiquing it.
Schwab's characters speak a language which is at once familiar and unfamiliar. Michael Mitchell's translation takes into account the numerous grammatical mistakes, made up words (German being a language in which one can take several nouns, attach them to each other, thus and create a new compound), and archaisms found in Schwab's German. On stage, it is unclear whether the characters know what they are saying or not, and this is intentional. It is also occasionally difficult to make out what the characters are saying. Yet, while the words may sometimes float by unparsed, the incomprehensibility adds to the play instead of detracting from it. What the characters say is not as important as how they say it or what they are doing while they say it.
As the words pour almost controllably out of the characters' mouths, it is clear what it is each wishes to achieve in their encounters with one another. Power lies at the base of each coupling. A prostitute convinces an executive that her services are on the house and then, after the deed is done, expects payment. A landlord shoves his tenant's head under water, sticks his penis in her underwear, and afterwards her only response is “Ok, but no water at the next performance.” Do these people enjoy their sexual liaisons? The answer seems irrelevant.
Ildiko Nemeth's direction and Julie Atlas Muz's choreography ensure that meaning is conveyed at all times. Movement based interludes show the characters preparing and unpreparing for their scenes. The opening features the entire cast donning their genitalia and various costumes, over top of a basic white uniform, covered in white ribbons, which suggests at once an image of both straitjackets and zombies.
Despite its rather crass theme and crude language, a sense of beauty emanates from the production. The set, designed by Ms. Nemeth, Jessica Sofia Mitrani, and Joel Grossman, literally sparkles. Luxurious fabrics are draped across a bed stage right, and dragged across stage, draped over various characters as the scenes change. Over top of their white unitards, the women wear gold accented dresses or silky black lace.
The various visual and aural elements of The Round of Pleasure assure an enjoyable show for anyone seeking an evening of sensory stimulation. In the end, the show is not so much about sex as about the ways in which people manipulate and are manipulated, whether by other people or by the words they are forced to use.