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This review by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 21, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: Fraulein Elsa

She stands on the edge of the tennis court, clutching her racquet, a

radiant young woman on the threshold of adulthood. Observing all,

examining all, nothing escapes her notice. The young woman’s taut body

seems to quiver with tension and anticipation. What is this teenager

thinking?

This is the question Francesca Faridany aims to answer in "Fraulein

Else," her dramatization of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1924 novella that

opened last week at McCarter’s Berlind Theater, and where performances

continue through Sunday, February 15. Directed by Stephen Wadsworth,

the play is essentially a one-woman tour de force by Faridany,

assisted by a handful of supporting players. An intriguing and

provocative drama, "Fraulein Else" doesn’t fully satisfy; yet it

provides ample food for thought long after the curtain has fallen.

Set in 1912, in a luxury resort in the Italian Alps in late summer,

"Fraulein Else" is a 90-minute drama that takes its central character

– and its audience – on a dizzying journey through the psyche. Over

the course of a single night, we watch the happy but conflicted Else

thrown into the depths of despair and sexual conflict, perhaps ending

her life with a cocktail of barbiturates and Champagne. The action is

fueled by Else’s almost incessant torrent of charming and

contradictory chatter.

"What a wonderful evening!" exclaims Else as the play opens. She

addresses us directly and, like the blank pages of her diary, we

immediately become Else’s closest confidantes. "I’m high-spirited, not

haughty," she insists, before sharing a string of random fantasies

about love, marriage, and the other hotel guests. As her mother (Mary

Baird) reports in a letter from home, "Your description of all the

guests made us laugh ’til we choked." Yet lurking beneath Else’s

pleasure and longing for love is the virgin’s fear of sex, and the

fear that she cannot love.

Else’s inner monologue is a wondrous mix of the profound and the

mundane. Her haphazard and confessional stream-of-consciousness, which

ranges from her cousin’s flirtation to nose hairs to her monthly

periods, offer glimpses of youth reminiscent of 15-year-old Anne

Frank’s diaries.

As products of the post-Freudian era, we’re apt to doubt much of what

Else thinks. Certainly every situation and emotion that courses

through her mind is all too real to her. But whether her body is

actually to be bartered by her family to the old art dealer Herr von

Dorsday (Julian Lopez-Morillas), in exchange for payment of one of her

father’s perennial gambling debts, is an open question. Love and

anger, in constant battle, ebb and flow within her. Significantly, we

watch Else imagining herself in her coffin, asking, "Who will cry for

me when I’m dead?"

Just as Sigmund Freud doubted the interpretation of events described

by his patient Dora, another upper-middle class Viennese girl who

believed her parents were pressuring her to grant sexual favors to a

middle-aged man, so Faridany keeps us guessing as to whether Else

meets Herr von Dorsday at the woodland rendezvous or whether it is

another of the high-strung girl’s flights of fancy.

"Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria" was based on Freud’s

analysis, in 1900, of 18-year-old Dora whose disabling neurosis was

manifest in headaches, fatigue, fainting, coughing, and thoughts of

suicide. Dora has long been the poster child of feminist historians

battling Freud’s interpretations of his own case studies, powerful

narratives often fueled by his own flights of fancy. While Freud’s

goal was to rid Dora of her neurosis by leading her to become more

accepting of the reality of the sexual dynamics of adult life,

feminists have tended to support Dora in her outrage at the hypocrisy

of her times.

Dora’s case also provided the chance to unmask the Victorian malady of

women’s hysteria for what it was: psychosis brought on among women of

the privileged classes who were expected to remain passive and

decorative within the four walls of the family home.

Schnitzler’s contemporaneous plays and novellas that circle themes of

sex, love, and death in decadent Viennese society have been

effectively revived into such popular productions as David Hare’s "The

Blue Room," and Stanley Kubrick’s "Eyes Wide Shut."

Actress Faridany has memorably appeared at McCarter in Wadsworth’s

(her husband’s) productions of Moliere’s "Don Juan," Noel Coward’s

"Design for Living," and Marivaux’s "The Game of Love and Chance."

Here she brings her mobile facial features, darting, piercing eyes,

and slender body to create the imaginary teenager, Else. As the

tension builds, we watch her, looking fetching in a vampish evening

gown and high heels, totter off to meet her fate like a gawky teen.

But while there are passages when we can suspend disbelief and

experience Faridany as the 19-year-old she portrays, this is not

consistently true. This taut and tantalizing text could well be

interpreted by someone closer to Else’s age.

Thomas Lynch’s ingeniously effective single set features a scrim on

which the majestic Alps hover over all, at the same time that he shows

simultaneous interior and exterior views of the resort. Fixed in the

background there is also a prominent psychic space for Else’s mother,

who influences events from back home in Vienna. The cast includes

Lauren Lovett as hotel guest Cissy, and Omid Abtahi as the porter.

Audiences for "Fraulein Else" are cautioned to be prepared for the

production’s full nudity and adult situations (and smoking). Yet

anyone who thinks Freud has become old hat for we worldly denizens of

the 21st century would do well to revisit "Dora." His descriptions of

the sexual pressures experienced by Dora, beginning at age 14, the

conflicting signals from parents and society, with discussion of the

whys and wherefore of Clinton-Lewinsky type proclivities, are

powerfully frank.

In Faridany’s dramatic interpretation, Else’s rapid banter continues

almost interrupted with only two significant schisms. The first comes

when she reads the letter from her mother imploring her to ask Von

Dorsday for money: Else’s single exclamation "What!" brings all action

to an eerie standstill. The second schism ends the drama suddenly and

spectacularly: it is Else’s gasp of disbelief at where her panic has

brought her, and her final hopeful challenge, "No!"

– Nicole Plett

Fraulein Else, Berlind Theater at McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. Stars Francesca Faridany. $30 to $48.

Performances to February 15.


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