Manhattan Theatre Club always presents exciting and provocative pieces, and for this reason I jumped at the chance to get tickets for Tales From Red Vienna‘s first public performance. It also helped that the last time Nina Arianda, Vienna’s leading lady, worked with MTC, it was the totally mind-blowing Venus in Fur, one of my all-time favorite plays and performances.
I felt moved enough by this performance to discuss a larger issue at hand than whether the play was worthy enough of your hard-earned (or not… that’s cool too) cash. Those of us who read the press for the play know that the plot centers around a young widow who “reluctantly turns to the oldest profession’ in order to makes ends meet. So expect there to be a sex scene or two, right?
Well, the very first scene in Red Vienna delivers a sex scene, sure. But it’s also unmistakably a rape scene. Before a single word of David Grimm’s script is spoken, Arianda’s un-introduced character, who is later named as Helena, steps into a standard 1920’s era apartment. A few steps behind her follows an un-introduced man. Helena is dressed in black mourning garb and is visibly distressed by the man’s entrance. The man approaches her and begins to caress her, Helena still noticeably upset. She tenses up and resists, but the man forcefully lift her up on a table, lifts her dress, and has violent sex with her despite her protests. After he finishes with her, he fixes himself in a mirror, whistling a short ditty, while Helena remains on the table, watching his movements with an expression of disgust, anger, and fear. As soon as he exits, she begins to sob.
There are many reasons why a playwright might want to open a play with such a scene, but any of the reasons must be very seriously considered. I’ve never been one to complain about too much sex or violence in television and film. Violence can be artfully used to explore a theme or message, or it could be used purely for entertainment, and most people are usually able to tell the difference. A movie like 300, for example uses it abundant sex and violence as entertainment– more specifically for viewers to marvel at its carefully orchestrated battle scenes, epic visual effects, and some hot bods. Sex and violence in something like A Clockwork Orange might set critics pondering about what such images show about the characters’ relationships to each other and their interior lives, or how disillusioned youth reacts against society… or whatever. That’s not to say that 300 fans are less smart, or that they can’t make up their own theories of why so much violence is so penetratingly popular. But that’s really the face value of these movies and audiences usually know what to expect when they enter the theater.
The rape scene at Vienna‘s start is a shocking one. I felt the air in the theater immediately tense up and the couple next to me gasped and sighed “oh god” a few times. Sexual violence is an emotional and provocative issue, and its places the audience under a particularly imposing emotional duress. When you place a scene like that at the very start of the play, the aim presumably is to confront your audience bluntly with the themes and tones of the play, much like the first line of a novel. Obviously the play is about sex, marriage, and relationships, but this scene shows a sordid, aggressive, and abusive relationship. It’s a scene that immediately forces you to sympathize with the victim and hate the rapist. (I am of course operating under the belief that an act of sexual aggression is still an act of sexual aggression even in when it involves a prostitute.) A scene like this makes me assume that everything from this point on in the play is going to either lead up to this scene or depict its consequences. That doesn’t mean the rest of the play MUST be serious and brooding or political. It can have layers of humor and romance, etc. just like any other great play. But the rape must have a place in the play’s narrative, right? And we wouldn’t expect a quaint, cutesy living room drama, right?
Well, um, I mean… that’s kinda what we got. The scene immediately following the rape takes place in the same setting, a domestic living room, but the night’s proceedings are forgotten. There’s a wise-cracking maid (Kathleen Chalfant), who might have made a great supporting character in another play. In this one, it feels a bit out-of-place. Vernacular words like “stiffy,” as well as the maid’s ongoing dates with a town professor, are all not only anachronistic, but also uncomfortable after the play’s initial scene. In fact, nearly everyone in this play seems to talk as if Joss Whedon had co-writing credits.
To clarify, I’m not against humorous, light-hearted scripts. Nor do I necessarily have a problem with anachronistic material. But when you have a play about a middle-class widow who battles class and gender politics in 1920’a Vienna, and who has suffered a rape in the first scene of the play, there’s a responsibility to portray her circumstances with thoughtfulness and truth. Notable plays like Clybourne Park or Venus In Fur were brilliant because they took heavy subjects like gentrification and sexism and presented them with wonderfully entertaining, yet still provocative pieces.
[Spoiler Alert] There’s also the fact that Nina Arianda’s Helena ends up falling quite head over heels for the man of the opening scene (Michael Esper). In their subsequent encounters, there’s very little mention of the rape. In fact, Helena seems to be the one who is embarrassed by it. So… wait a minute. Vienna presents to us an intense scene that shocked us and made us hate this man for what he did. And now we’re supposed to believe that Helena’s experience weighs so little on her new love? This leads me to believe that Vienna’s opening scene is purely for shock value. It weighs little to nothing on the story or on her choices. It is only a easy way to voyeuristically instigate audiences with something that is consequentially ignored or forgotten later in the piece. This is a betrayal of the audience’s trust, as well as a poorly judged and inconsiderately manipulated depiction of sexual power.