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Aurora Repolishes a 19th Century Gem in Schnitzler's Lively Anatol

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Annie (Delia MacDougall) takes a break from her oysters and champagne to lecture Anatol (Mike Ryan) while a skeptical Max (Tim Kniffin) observes. Photos by David Allen

Imagine Don Juan as a buffoon, a hapless captive of his own lust, condemned to pursue and bed every woman he encounters yet unable to draw satisfaction from any of his escapades. The man you see is Anatol, protagonist of the play of the same name by Arthur Schnitzler, which is receiving a lively, whimsical resurrection at Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.

Anatol, which premiered in Vienna in 1893, was the first of some 25 plays by Schnitzler, and brought him immediate fame. Its chronicle of clearly suggested sexual liaisons also inspired condemnation from many of his countrymen, as well as anti-Semitic attacks that had nothing to do with the play. Sex wasn't the stuff of casual conversation in Austria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

By the 21st century, the play's capacity to shock has long since evaporated, to be replaced by a capacity to amuse. And Aurora's new production, directed by Barbara Oliver and featuring three expert performances in a fluid new translation by Margret Schaefer, does that superbly.

Created as a series of nine vignettes and usually staged with seven, Aurora's Anatol consists of six: the three lighter pieces comprising the first act, the three harsher comedies after intermission. The show runs about two hours and 15 minutes.

Despite the presence of Anatol (Mike Ryan) in all six episodes and his crony Max (Tim Kniffin) in four, the show's true stars are six women, all played with scintillating variety by Delia MacDougall.

Not that there's anything weak about the male performances. Ryan and Kniffin dispatch their roles well, in the manner of comedic duos whose lineage goes back to vaudeville, if not earlier. Ryan is relatively short and stocky, and his Anatol is animated to the point of apoplexy at times; Kniffin is tall, thin and erect as the proverbial rail, and his Max is cool and unflappable as Anatol's friend, confidant and interlocutor.

Their personalities quickly become familiar as the vignettes unfold. By the nature of the play, they have no place to go, no chance to change. Whatever the challenge, they must face it in ways that are consistent with what has gone before.

MacDougall, on the other hand, faces no such limitations. Each of her characters is unique in personality if not in at least one important attitude: a lack of sexual restraint. They are no more chaste than Anatol and his male friends, archetypes of wealthy, indolent Viennese society.

In act one, she becomes an eager 19-year-old whose innocence dissolves in suggestions of multiple affairs, then a circus artiste whose memory of past encounters with Anatol is fuzzy at best, and finally a married woman and former lover who struggles to help Anatol choose a Christmas gift for his current amour. If there is a thread that bonds the three characters, it is a scarcity of demonstrativeness; no screeches, no screams, no stagy excess.

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Anatol (Ryan) and Max (Kniffin) debate matters of fidelity while Cora (MacDougall) rests in hypnotized slumber.

Than restraint vanishes after intermission. In "The Last Supper," MacDougall gulps expensive oysters and swills fine champagne in Vienna's finest hotel while delaying the moment when she will tell Anatol that she's dumping him; in "Anatol's Wedding Day," she rants and pleads as a blowsy lover who refuses to let him slink away to his impending nuptials. Between those sketches, she takes a more defensive tone as a fiancee who is assailed by Anatol's paranoia, provoked by his discovery of several mementoes of her past relationships.

The breadth of the role and the polish with which MacDougall handles it could easily rank with the year's best in the Bay Area.

The vignettes take place in five locales, beautifully suggested by John Iacovelli's ingenious settings, which work their magic through changes of furnishings and the rotation of a rear wall of Aurora's small stage.

Anatol is certainly a period piece, but one whose charms merit this sprightly, engaging revival.

Anatol runs through May 13 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48, from 510-843-4822 or www.auroratheatre.org.