Between the offstage moans and copious brandy drinking, it’s hard to believe Players’ Theatre’s final show of the year was first written in 1897. What’s more believable, though, is that Arthur Schnitzler’s original version, Reigen, was banned for several decades. Adapted for a contemporary audience under the title Round Dance, Players’ production pushes the controversial elements to their limits.
Amidst a minimal set of wooden crates, draped canvases, and exposed lights, the show begins with a familiar trope: a soldier (Anni Choudhury) on leave passes by a fur-clad sex worker (Clara Nizard) and stops to ‘chat.’ As the woman requests her payment after sex, the scene serves as an immediate comment on the transactional nature of sex, establishing a power dynamic between the two characters that sets up the rest of the relationships in the play.
Each scene in Round Dance shows a couple in the moments immediately before or after their sexual encounter, the storyline carefully maintaining continuity by extracting one character from the pair in each scene and placing them in the next. To start off, it’s the soldier who has the upper hand – there is a chilling moment in which the soldier roughly grabs the woman and shakes her before pushing her away in disgust. But as each subsequent scene focuses on a new couple to examine the motif of control, these traditional power dynamics are exploited and critiqued.
Round Dance is not afraid to face tough issues head on, particularly with regard to consent. Several of the scenes depict the abuse of power, while manipulation and rejection recur throughout the play. In the pairing of the husband (Choudhury) and the sweet boy (Oscar Paul Georges Lecuyer), there is the painful sting of rejection as the naïve boy realizes the husband sees him as disposable, but this rejection is also coupled with clear abuse on the part of the husband. This scene may also inadvertently speak to the scary recidivism sometimes witnessed in sex crimes, as Choudhury’s character practically replicates the abusive actions of his other role, that of the soldier, in the first two scenes.
As each subsequent scene focuses on a new couple to examine the motif of control, these traditional power dynamics are exploited and critiqued.
Though these heavy moments are trying, Round Dance also allows us to laugh at some of the imbalanced power dynamics. Comic relief comes in the form of Connor Spencer as the sensitive, aloof, yet over-the-top poet, who lords over the sweet boy, only to be subsequently lorded over by an even more grandiose – and equally funny – Eléonore Von Friken as the actress.
While the production may not be as shocking to audiences as the original 1897 version, director Hannah Kirby’s casting choices make Round Dance surprisingly subversive by moving away from the heteronormativity of the original script. A scene between a master (Nizard) and maid (Spencer), instead of portraying a typical, Fifty Shades-esque dynamic, is altered so that it occurs between two women, playing with common conceptions of domination.
These casting choices also strip away the gendered aspects of consent and control that were central to the 1897 version of the production, leaving the themes to be explored in a more nuanced space. Visceral reactions to coercion from both genders illuminate more facets of the subject than a heteronormative take on it would. Kirby’s adaptation creates a refreshingly honest comment on the timeless dialectic of power and sex.
These directorial choices would fall flat, however, without the powerhouse acting of the cast. Lecuyer is simultaneously bashful, paranoid, and coquettish, as the pawn in the husband’s hands, while the chemistry between Nizard and Von Friken – as two women who fight, and subsequently lose to, their desire for each other – is palpable.
Round Dance promises sex, and lots of it. While some of the perspectives are a bit dated – particularly one conversation in which a character asks a sex worker “doesn’t sex mean anything to you?” – the play surprises in its ability to be current and relatable, 120 years after it was written. Trigger warning heeded, Round Dance can make you reevaluate your sex life.