Stripping Old Vienna Down to Its Bare Essentials, Martha Clarke Scores a Theatrical Triumph

UPDATED 09/01/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/01/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

For a month or so last winter, Martha Clarke was not a happy woman. Every morning when she met a troupe of actors and dancers at a rural Connecticut studio, her angular face was taut with worry. For months, she had directed the troupe as it created short, improvised vignettes of dance and dialogue. But now that she wanted to fit those pieces into one work, she felt waves of doubt. Some of her cast complained that she was cutting the best bits. Others, impatient with her slow decisions, threatened to quit. Says dancer Rob Besserer, "She was like a goldfish. She couldn't focus. She would ask a question and then look somewhere else when you answered." Recalls Clarke, 42, "I was completely lost and terribly frightened that I was going to have a stillbirth with this project."

Instead, she has an idiosyncratic show and a singular triumph. Clarke's Vienna: Lusthaus, which opens Sept. 2 at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center after a controversial two-month run off-Broadway, is not usual in any way. A free-form collage of images, speech and music, the hour-long piece re-creates the mood of the Lusthaus Pavillion, a center for social life in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Too visual to be called theater and too static and verbal to be dance, Clarke's creation defines a new genre. Critics have responded with raves, although audiences have sometimes been baffled. "I hope they will abandon trying to understand this work the way they may understand The Love Boat," says Clarke, who won an Obie award for the stage show. "They should look at it the way they listen to music, with an abstract point of view."

Sachertorte, waltzes and all the familiar clichés about Vienna are not the stuff of the piece that Clarke concocted with composer Richard Peaslee and writer Charles Mee Jr. Their oddly juxtaposed scenes include an actor who simulates a brutal love scene by manipulating a pair of boots on his hands, an old woman chasing a young soldier with a knife, a bearded intellectual who recounts eerie dreams and a pair of nude female lovers. That last image sends shock murmurs through audiences unaccustomed to nudity onstage. But Clarke justifies its inclusion by pointing to the nude studies by Viennese painter Egon Schiele. Her onstage tableaux exactly mirror the disturbing distortions in his paintings of nudes. "It's not humping and pumping out there," she says. "The scene is too still to be erotic."

As evidenced by a current exhibit about Vienna at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art, Clarke's work coincides with a sudden Stateside revival of interest in the city she depicts. The fascination with turn-of-the-century Vienna, according to Clarke, comes from the great contrasts of the place—after all, it nurtured both Freud and Hitler. Clarke, who compares Vienna to "a beautiful wedding cake with maggots in it," attempted to capture the city's dark and light side. "There was a high life as well as great beauty," she says, "but there was also a lot of misery and perversity."

Born and raised in Baltimore, Clarke, whose late father was a lawyer and whose mother is a "professional bon vivant," didn't discover her penchant for fine art until she was 15. She loved riding horses, but one summer she "got off of the saddle and into the dance studio." Dancing became an obsession, and after four years at Juilliard she worked with several New York City companies. In 1971, when her husband, sculptor Philip Grausman, became an artist in residence at Dartmouth, Clarke joined the Pilobolus Dance Theatre, which formed on campus. Highly praised for its unique gymnastic style, the company gave Clarke a chance to choreograph dances. She toured with the troupe for seven years. In 1978 she became co-director of her own dance group, Crowsnest, and a divorce two years later furthered her independence. After directing her actress friend Linda (The Year of Living Dangerously) Hunt in small-scale theater pieces, she found her first big success with 1984's The Garden of Earthly Delights. Based on paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, the work re-created heaven and hell with actors that flew Peter Pan-style over the audience.

In the 1803 Connecticut farmhouse she shares part-time with her son, David, 17, Clarke tries not to play the tortured artist. She rarely uses her at-home dance studio. "The tyranny of body care," she says, "it's too much for me." She worries more about the garden that needs weeding or collaborating on dinner with David. "I cook, he eats, I clean up," she says.

Those who know Clarke suggest that the contrasts within Vienna have parallels in her personality. "On the surface, there is an open smile, easy laughter," says her producer Joseph Papp. "But lurking beneath it she has a brooding quality." It's difficult to see that side of Clarke these days as she happily chats about how Vienna may play in L.A., Paris and Jerusalem next spring and how Mikhail Baryshnikov, who loved the show, wants to work with her soon.

But every so often her intensity surfaces. Asked if she minds that some people leave Vienna without understanding it, she squeezes her brow over suddenly sad eyes. "I don't always like my work either," she says, quietly. "Sometimes it seems like the Emperor's new clothes. I think there's nothing out there. But when I like it, it's because it hits an emotional truth." She smiles again. "Life is difficult but generally hopeful, and when my work expresses that, I feel I've done my job."

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