It’s an unfortunate tale you’ve heard a lot lately: The Village Theatre, home of New Ground Theatre, wound up with water in the basement this past month. But “The show must go on!” is a cliché for a reason, and Friday's opening-night performance of American La Ronde, indeed, went on as planned to recap the romantic journey of a single silver bracelet.
I know you’re probably thinking to yourself, “I don’t want to see a play about a bracelet.” Luckily for you, though, playwright Steven Dietz’s American La Ronde (based on the 1897 play Reigen, more commonly known as La Ronde in Arthur Schnitzler's French translation) explores the good and bad in different romantic relationships through 10 short stories woven together, all of them involving an innocent silver bracelet that is continuously passed along. The ensemble features Liz Sager, Scot Gehret, Cassie Dowell, and Vickie Underwood, each of whom is at least double-cast to tell this tale, and director Craig Cohoon kept Friday's performance moving.
Cohoon, who pulled double duty as scenic designer, created a fairly nondescript set with three levels. Each location featured the bare minimum to get the scenes' points across, allowing the focus to be more on the action. I was especially fascinated to find that with each story, Cohoon's production literally flowed slowly down the platforms in a delicate dance before winding its way back up to where it began – a seamless visual metaphor to the circular bracelet featured in this theatrical round-robin. (While it's not necessary, plot-wise, to know what the bracelet’s inscription was, as it kept being mentioned, I was admittedly disappointed to be left in the dark at the end of the night.)
While the bracelet faithfully appeared in every story, no matter how small its part may have been, the human ensemble members generally stuck around for at least two parts of the tale. At times, American La Ronde suffered from Dietz's writing, specifically when moments meant to be risqué felt especially forced. (It didn’t always make sense that the characters would feel the need to physically straddle their companions.) However, one story featuring Gehret and Sager as a married couple getting ready for bed stood out from the rest. Here, the energy felt relaxed and effortless as they prepared to wind down, and the way their conversation progressed felt natural and honest. Gehret was especially easy to hear and had a wide range of facial expressions, making his moments on stage among my favorites.
Sager’s three distinct characters ran the gamut and so did her motivations, but I was enamored with her throughout. Her characters, more than anyone else’s, brought up the theme found throughout the production, in that that desire can get in the way of honesty in relationships, old and new. Newsflash: Lying rarely works out the way you want it to.
The collective lighting effects designed by Jacque Cohoon – ranging from those employed for a darkly lit gentlemen’s club to bright, open apartment windows in an apartment – fittingly enhanced each scene's specific atmosphere. Meanwhile, Ellie Gradert’s sound design featured the song “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” which perfectly suited the mood – the transition it supported made the lyrics a major focus, with Dowell lip-synching along as her character listened to the song via earbuds. Here, Dowell played opposite Gehret and, though I question the choice of a string backpack (no one could rustle up a sturdy backpack better suited to a student writing a thesis?), it also felt as though this scene was among the production's most fleshed-out, with actual anger and disappointment exploding from Dowell, especially after the flippant way in which Gehret left her the bracelet.
The entire ensemble was clearly very comfortable with each other, which, given the subject matter, certainly makes sense. Occasionally, the chemistry between the actors felt forced, as it was hard to see where the passion they were experiencing came from. By my estimation, Underwood drew the short straw when it came to some of the physical interactions, resulting in one of the most awkward foot rubs I’ve ever witnessed – but at least she fully committed to the moment.
The fluidity of American La Ronde’s heady mix of lies and romantic interludes occasionally damaged the characters; sometimes the bracelet was important to them, and at other times, it was seemingly interwoven as an afterthought. But it was the one thing keeping the storyline moving forward – ultimately all the way back to the beginning. And while New Ground’s production has some weak spots – the costumes, for instance, have a tendency to fall into unnecessary stereotypes – this is nevertheless a commentary on relationships worth telling.
American La Ronde runs at the Village Theatre (2113 East 11th Street, Davenport) through May 26, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)326-7529 or visiting Facebook.com/NewGroundTheatre.