Corrections or additions?
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
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
"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
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
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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