nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
October 5, 2006
Arthur Schnitzler wrote about sex. In "Fräulein Else," a stream-of-consciousness short story, he wrote about sex and all of the emotional layers that come with it—especially that which could be called repression by some but might be described by others as confusion without the ability to find a way through. This allows for some potent material to be mined from the power, danger and fragility found in adolescence and its emerging sexuality. Indicting a hypocritical society that praised virginity while promoting double standards and duplicitous behavior, Schnitzler created a work that has much resonance for today. Lest it seem too much Linzer torte and lace stockings, consider that the vulnerability of a 17-year-old girl forced to play at sexual stakes she doesn't fully understand might seem a recognizable experience to a congressional page. Fräulein Else, as adapted and played by Amy de Lucia, is the page's side of the story.
On vacation in a mountain spa with richer relatives, Else receives an urgent letter from her mother. The letter explains that her father has again lost an enormous sum gambling and that the family is about to be ruined. Else is urged to approach a family friend, a doctor who is also staying at the hotel, who could loan them the money and save them all. Suddenly made the financial emissary for the family, Else is frantically planning what to do and fighting what she feels she must do, when she runs into the doctor. After awkwardly explaining the problem, she receives an offer from him that is so compromising as to throw her off what little grounding she had. Further pressuring her is a telegram from her mother explaining that the amount is even higher than previously thought and Else must get the money for the family. Torn between suspecting that her parents know exactly what position they have placed her in and being unable to think that of them, she is also conflicted by the growing awareness of her own attractiveness and sexuality but without the understanding of how to accommodate her feelings. Else is young enough to still see everything in extremes and short-term outcomes. Her black-and-white view leaves her no gray area in which to navigate the maneuverings of the adults around her.
With her feverish commitment and occasional strong grace, Amy de Lucia captures much of Else's battle. In a demanding show which requires all things to be communicated through the one character and her stream-of-consciousness thoughts, de Lucia does not shirk from the difficulties. Urgency and high emotions surge through her Else, and the tormented flailing, arrogance, and awkwardness of a teenager is clearly evoked. Although she never backs off, there were a few moments when it felt as if she overran a moment that hadn't quite happened. However those missteps were rare and will most likely disappear as the show grows and she finds an even more complete emotional grounding. The fullness of Else's experience, and the tragedy of her inability to find a way out of it, are in place. Crucially, de Lucia navigates the play's ending assuredly and clearly, finding a powerful honesty in her own voice and communicating the palpable relief of giving up when all is truly lost.
Perhaps the most crucial design elements to establish the time period for a play is the costume design. David R. Zyla has created lush concoctions that evoke the era and move well on the actor. The relatively modest space of Theatre 5 is solidly served by Robert F. Wolin's simple but defining set, and Kathleen Powers has directed de Lucia in how to move clearly through it so that multiple locations are clearly defined. Less effective for me is the lighting design by Karen Spahn, which feels sometimes too literal in "real-time" scenes and then becomes gloriously natural in a dream sequence. A major difficulty in a stream-of-consciousness piece is how to convey the voices of other characters, and having both a voiceover for the doctor and Else saying his lines is not nearly as effective as when the voiceover exists by itself, as with voice of the cousin's mistress floating over the last minutes. Beyond that, there is a lovely soundscape at the top of the production, in place of house music, that subtly and movingly leads into the evening.
Fräulein Else overall is a graceful production of a turbulent time in any life, and all too pertinent within our own political scene.