Annie (Delia MacDougall), center, breaks up with Anatol (Mike Ryan), left, as Max (Tim Kniffin), right, looks on in “Anatol”. Photo: David Allen
Annie (Delia MacDougall), center, breaks up with Anatol (Mike Ryan), left, as Max (Tim Kniffin), right, looks on in “Anatol”. Photo: David Allen

Time stands still — or at least repeats itself in striking fashion — in Anatol, the Aurora Theatre Company’s current production of Austrian dramatist Arthur Schnitzler’s 1893 play.

In a series of six episodes, connected with threadlike chronology by central characters and themes forged in steel, the play unveils the wit, whimsy and withering self-preoccupation of an affluent “cad about town” and his obsession with sexually emancipated women.

Aurora Artistic Director Tom Ross became convinced of Schnitzler’s importance as a playwright after a meeting with translator Margret Schaefer, a Berkeley resident, and soon they were jointed by Barbara Oliver, a founding director at the Aurora, to bring the project to fruition.

The result, in tailored performances designed to be enjoyed in the moment, then savored in reflection, is near perfect. If the play’s central theme and fascination is with faithfulness over a lifetime, Shaefer’s selective ear, Oliver’s brilliant economy of staging, and the quality of the cast captures the audiences’ well-placed trust in mere minutes.

Mike Ryan’s portrayal of Anatol is bluster, idiocy, lust, and hubris all rolled into one. However violently you disagree with the character’s politically incorrect perspective on the opposite sex, you’ll find yourself throwing caution and disapproval temporarily into the wind of his exuberance.

Thanks to Oliver’s casting finesse, Ryan is made infinitely better by his counterparts, Tim Kniffin’s cool, secretly malicious Max, and the has-she-ever-been-better Delia MacDougall, who appears as the women in Anatol’s life.

MacDougall, frequently seen with the California Shakespeare Theater, Word for Word Performing Arts Company and on other Bay area stages, elevates the entire production. When she’s on stage, Schnitzler’s lines take on a marked energy, the physicality intensifies, and the humor both bubbles and bites.

Schaefer, in an interview a few weeks before opening night, said working with the cast was illuminating.

“They work on everything very minutely: sets, costumes, and every line,” she recalled.

During the intense and brief rehearsal period, she consulted with Oliver about interpretation of individual lines, but, primarily, she listened.

“I didn’t have to change all that much,” Schaefer said. “I cut a few parts that were over the top, but there’s always attention to what’s in the original text. On the other hand, it’s impossible, when working with the theater, not to take additional steps. It has to be speakable. If it didn’t sound right in their mouths, I changed it to sound natural.”

Anatol (Mike Ryan) shares a moment with a lady from his past (Delia MacDougall) in “Anatol”. Photo: David Allen
Anatol (Mike Ryan) shares a moment with a lady from his past (Delia MacDougall) in “Anatol”. Photo: David Allen

One of the most challenging aspects of the translation arose from the difference between the two languages.

“English has many more words than German. Any one word of German, I could render with ten different words in English,” she explained.

Portraying the culture of 1892 Vienna was also difficult.

“You can’t have footnotes,” Schaefer laughs, “for example, ‘girl from the suburbs’, in America, doesn’t connote the same thing at all. [Schnitzler] meant the outskirts, the bad side of a city, not something like Walnut Creek.”

Schaefer is most pleased with having captured Schnitzler’s fast-paced repartee and his lyrical use of language.

“He’s not a one-key dramatist and he has wonderful characterizations. Freud saw him as his literary double,” she said.

Asked about the play’s relevancy, Schaefer said: “I haven’t upgraded it consciously, but I do think it’s very modern. There’s a commitment-phobic young man, which is very modern. What could be dated is that he’s a man stuck between two worlds. He doesn’t allow the women the freedoms he has: he expects them to be faithful.”

Here Schaefer touches on what makes Anatol a play for 2012. In a constantly shifting world, where power no longer follows historical rules of nations, institutions or economies, the war between the sexes continues. What better way to ponder it than to laugh and moan, smile and clutch one’s head in despair — all while enjoying the considerable talents of Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company?

Anatol plays at the Aurora Theatre in downtown Berkeley through Sunday May 13. For information and tickets visit the Aurora Theatre.

Aurora Theatre: 20 years at heart of Berkeley’s cultural life [09.22.11]

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