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Sex-drenched La Ronde lurches from great to awful

Maev Beaty and Mike Ross in La Ronde

Cylla von Tiedemann

2 out of 4 stars

La Ronde
Written by
Arthur Schnitzler, adapted by Jason Sherman
Directed by
Alan Dilworth
Brandon McGibbon, Brenda Robins
Yonge Centre

The poet Curtis James Jackson III said it much more simply. In a memorable 2007 couplet, he captured the underlying message of Jason Sherman's intermittently brilliant, but often cringeworthy new adaptation of sex-drenched shocker La Ronde.

"Ayo, I'm tired of using technology," the rapper known primarily by the moniker 50 Cent wailed, capturing the tenor of our times. "Why don't you sit down on top of me?"

La Ronde was first written by Arthur Schnitzler, Austrian playwright and playboy, in 1897, but his spicy script was not staged until 1920. The original depicted 10 archetypal couples in 10 linked scenes set before and/or after sex: The Tart and the Soldier; the Soldier and the Chambermaid; the Chambermaid and the Young Gentleman, and so on and so forth until the Count ended up with the Tart.

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For his 2013 version set in Toronto – his second kick at the can after a 2001 adaptation, also for Soulpepper – Sherman has kept Schnitzler's sexually transmitted dramaturgy, but updated the themes to make the coital conversations cover-your-ears shocking once more.

Indeed, while this is the most nudity you're likely to ever see on the Soulpepper stage, it's not the dangling bits that elicit gasps. It's the subject matter which ranges from rape porn to auto-erotic asphyxiation to, that most dehumanizing modern mix of technology and sex, texting during the act.

Sherman's script is best the furthest it deviates from Schnitzler. His chambermaid (Miranda Edwards) and young gentleman (the rosy-cheeked Adrian Morningstar) could be quite compelling, for instance – she's a refugee from the Congo; he's a virginal sexual researcher at University of Toronto. Alas, they are saddled with Schnitzler's corny dialogue about how blue her blouse is, which clashes with Sherman's corny-in-a-different-way addition of a couple of hallucinated soldiers.

The most fully realized scene – funny, poignant and very, very sexy – is entirely an invention, set in 50 Cent's mating grounds. Thirtysomething lawyer Teddy (Mike Ross) is "in da club" with his buddy Lucas (the reliably hilarious Brandon McGibbon), and the two end up competing for the same young Ryerson student, Zoe (Grace Lynn Kung). Their potential threesome is derailed by Teddy's ethical qualms over – or perhaps fears of – the younger generation's "hook-up culture."

This is followed by a very intriguing scene, involving an actress-turned-sex-surrogate played with crisp confidence by Brenda Robins. In a monologue, she explains why she gave up the theatre: Staring out at an audience member checking messages on a BlackBerry one night, she realized her physical presence on stage could not compete with technology transmitting and receiving intimate messages.

The implications of her epiphany go well beyond the theatre, though her speech also allows Sherman to voice some of his long-standing ambivalence toward the art form.

Sherman gets the personal mostly right – and his constant comparison of the sexual undercurrents of Toronto to the paved-over waterways that the city is built on is a excellent metaphor. Alas, his attempts to tackle the larger politics of globalization in the play are almost always clumsy and ham-fisted.

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His most egregious lapse into polemic involves a businessman named Robert, played with extreme stiltedness by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as a physical incarnation of a fat-capitalist cartoon from the pages of Pravda. Later, a soldier – a sensitive Stuart Hughes – gives a speech about men in towers who control the world, and how much he'd like to blow those towers up. This nostalgia for 9/11 seems designed to be the play's touching moment; it is revolting.

Alan Dilworth's production looks swell on a forced-perspective box set designed by Lorenzo Savoini that comes apart impressively. Thomas Ryder Payne's sound design rocks the house with nods to Prodigy and Nirvana. The Soulpepper company – daring stalwarts mixed with younger imports – are game. I'd love to love the production – and I'd encourage the adventurous to check it out – but it's undeniable that it lurches from great to awful from scene to scene.

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