Sex and the Old World City


The white horses galloping through some of Martha Clarke’s previous works don’t turn up in Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited), but the human beings act like beasts and do have equestrian tendencies. Among the fleeting images in Clarke’s dance-theater panorama: A woman dreamily recalls fondling a horse and then its rider in ancient India. Marching troops lift their feet like hooves. A man combs a woman’s hair as if grooming a mane, jumps her from behind, and trots off. Later a soldier tousles his lover’s blouse, face, and hair with a riding crop. Bourgeois women parade in step through falling snow, lifting their legs like show ponies.

Subconscious animal impulses—lust, domination, violence—emerge in many of the fragments in Clarke’s gorgeous mosaic of imagery, movement, and dialogue evoking early-20th-century Vienna. With the fluidity of a dream, Clarke continuously moves clusters of characters through two giant doorways onto Robert Israel’s pristine set of white walls and empty space. In vignettes suggested by Freud’s casebooks and paintings by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, these figures often embark on erotic explorations—touching each other’s bodies or recounting fantasies—with intruding hints of physical brutality or psychological pain.

Private realities project public ones, as Clarke links the power dynamics embedded in these encounters to looming militarism. Industry had torn Old World society apart, and turn-of-the-century Vienna (as now) was haunted by the specter of global war. Clarke suggests the era’s mobilization with the ghostly presence of uniformed soldiers and introduces clock sounds in speechless moments, as if to join history and the present, time and the inevitable. She conjures a modern moment that’s equally charged and hollow; we can feel both the electricity of a city unshackling its repressed desires and the grotesque deadness falling all over it.

The current version at New York Theatre Workshop, with music by Richard Peaslee, is a revival of the 1986 original. I didn’t see it then, so can’t say what’s been “revisited.” But it’s too bad the text wasn’t better parsed as part of the remake; Charles L. Mee’s breathy dream-prose doesn’t have the eloquence of Clarke’s disarming stage poetry. Nonetheless, Vienna: Lusthaus fulfills the director’s lyrical vision: It is an eerily sensual prelude to the new century’s lust for violence.

While Martha Clarke retreats to Vienna, Target Margin invades the opera house. After the velvety red curtain rises at the Connelly Theater, the first thing you notice is a giant chandelier grounded at center stage, as if director David Herskovits had just cut it down with a machete. This is just the beginning of TMT’s mischievous sabotage of 19th-century tradition in The Sandman, a new opera by Thomas Cabaniss.

The Sandman is only partly concerned with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original tale—about a man whose childhood demons haunt him to the point of madness—although librettists Cabaniss, Herskovits, and Douglas Langworthy tap it as their source. (Delibes wrote a ballet and Offenbach an opera based on the same story.) Target Margin’s scenario, however, suggests an opera rehearsal or lab. A ladder, a sound board, safety lights, and six singers in heavy makeup share the stage with selected set pieces from Hoffmann (a giant windowpane, an antique writing desk).

The performers gamely follow the music in and out of the tale, and tenor Christian Sebek makes a bravura effort to convey the fearful Nathanael’s hallucinations. The Sandman, however, usually undercuts its emotional momentum. Like Hoffmann’s short story, the opera begins in epistolary form with letters sung back and forth between characters, and then abruptly abandons it, shifting into third-person narrative. But as if endlessly replaying this textual oddity, The Sandman interrupts its spooky tale over and over again: As an aria or duet concludes, songs by the Cure or Johnny Cash blare from the sound system while the cast breaks character, regroups, then resumes.

Throughout, the company sends up the hideous conventions of opera acting by clasping their hands, extending their arms, singing with exaggerated vibrato, and speaking recitative with absurd plaintiveness. Musicians climb onstage from the pit to take violin solos as if playing lead guitar. Canned applause follows poignant duets. The sound operator samples chicken noises and makes untimely mistakes. As you might expect, the thread of Hoffmann’s chilling story tends to get buried under all the silliness, despite Cabaniss’s lovely score and some expressive singing. In the past, Herskovits’s direction has been wittiest when understated and focused on a scene’s action. This was wonderfully sustained in his shrewd Marriage of Figaro last fall, and we see it here in flashes, especially in late scenes (when grieving survivors pass around the love interest’s dismembered body parts with nonchalance). But opera makes such an easy target; when The Sandman merely repeats irreverent gestures, even artful shtick wears thin.