Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Arena Stage's "Tales from the Vienna Woods" is a strikingly brilliant production of a rich, fascinating drama.
Christopher Hampton's translation is the first in the English language of any work by Odon von Horvath, whose German plays were much admired in the period between the two world wars. Introduced last year by Britain's National Theater, this first American production is being presented concurrently with another production by New Haven's Yale Repertory Theater.
With remarkable scenic design by Zack Brown subtly evocative music arranged by Mel Marvin, David Chambers' detailed production begins Arena's 29th year on a level that can bring pride to co-founder Zelda Fichandler, now on leave for this season and next.
Physical and aural atmosphere are vital to this disciplined sprawl of middle-class life while Austria is prostrating itself before the approaching Nazis. Horvath created this in his adopted Austria in 1931 when Brecht was working on parallel but basically different lines within Germany.
The central figures include an innocent girl strictly raised by her dictatorial, widowed father. Marianne rebels by disowning the young butcher in a shop across the square from her father's doll and toy store. On sight she picks up with a worthless gambling charmer, Alfred, a weakling accustomed to attracting and using women.
Their relationship affects families, neighbors and casual acquaintances. Alfred's former lady friend, who runs a nearby tobacconist's, ultimately becomes a force in reconciliations. The baby born to the unmarried Marianne exists to turn his grandmother into a murderess. Marianne's father denies he has a daughter and he shows no pity after he sees her stripped naked in a nightclub. The young butcher waits to retrieve her on the grounds that it is happier for one to love than to be loved.
While the play first appears to be without precise form, the 14 scenes have a striking architectural shape, the first and final scenes unifying the whole. The panoramic effect is gorgeously realized in Brown's settings, which fly, come up from below and glide on rollers with superb technical skill. The sounds of the waltzes are expertly modulated, including forecasts of Nazi sounds to come. Miraculously, Horvath was creating from his imagination episodes that came later.
All the characters have subtleties not always found in Brecht's characters. Kathryn Dowling's Marianne, remarkably controlled for so young and inexperienced a newcomer, achieves a grave dignity, while Richard Bauer's Alfred is the epitome of strutting male arrogance.
Especially admirable is Halo Wines' ability to bring out the endlessly different, often conflicting aspects of the tobacco shop's Valerie. Giving this Arena veteran her finest role yet, the rich part is rewarded through her development of each scene, revealing new layers of character in each.
The hugh company of 35, some of whom double in small parts, is marshalled with unflagging visual effects, small details such as a family picnic and the home of two aristocratic sisters furthering the vital atmosphere.
For in this angry, bitter, yet strangely forgiving play, the whole adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. It is a work of equivocal philosophy, something more than the surface indignities which Arena has labeled "For Mature Audiences."
There is an awesome sense of pride in the young butcher's defiant faith that he will win Marianne in the end; this role, Oskar, is played with fine measured beat by Richard Russell Ramos. But there are other strong contributions from such as Sarah Felcher, Terrence Currier, Jack Eric Williams, Stanley Anderson, Richard Frank, Jessica Norton and Barbara Sohmers, David Toney brings individuality to a role recalling "Cabaret's" more dominant emcee.