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Theater review

"Transference" ** 1/2

World premiere drama by Wayne Peter Liebman.

Continues through Nov. 21 in Alleyway Theatre, One Curtain Up Alley. 852-2600.

With "Transference," a world premiere production in the Alleyway Theatre, Wayne Peter Liebman adds another perspective to the growing literature on Sabina Spielrein.

A couple of films already have come down the line, including "My Name Was Sabina Spielrein," a bio-pic by Elisabeth Marton. Christopher Hampton's recent play "The Talking Cure" focuses on Spielrein. But Liebman's interpretation may be unique.

What makes Spielrein so fascinating is her relationship with Carl Gustav Jung and Sigmund Freud in the early years of psychoanalysis. If her story is true -- a 1977 discovery of her diaries and letters seems to confirm that it is -- she played a significant role in the development of Jung's theory of the collective unconscious and may have been intricately involved in the famous break between the two psychoanalysts. In any case, we know she had a love affair with Jung and later became Freud's confidante.

In her late teens, Spielrein, a Russian Jew, suffered a mental problem centering on an obsession with feces and sexual humiliation. She also seems to have had a strikingly original and independent mind.

She had the distinction of being Carl Gustav Jung's first patient -- diagnosis: hysteria, the 19th century catch-all for female patients -- if not his first extra-marital lover.

Jung did cure her sufficiently so that she went on to build a career as a medical doctor. She was the first woman to become a member of the Psychological Society in Vienna and the first person to write about schizophrenia in children. And if this play is to be believed, she had some paranormal skills to boot.

I suspect that Liebman has a good play here, one that weaves a revised Jungian view of female consciousness with the harsh reality of woman's status at the turn of the century.

But even a taut, wire-edged performance by Susana Breese can't quite enliven the static work. If only Donn Youngstrom (Freud) and Ray Boucher (Jung) could come up to her level of energy. They are both perfectly adequate, but failed to break through the doctors' wooden Viennese facades and show us that they, too, had passions.

Far more damaging, though, was director Neal Radice's decision to stage the play like a modernist Greek tragedy. "Spartan" was the word of the night -- bare stage, minimal set against a pit of black, somnambulistic lighting, isolated actors and more of that god-awful music that Radice insists on burdening his plays with.

Todd Warfield's costumes didn't help. Pre-cure Spielrein arrives at sessions with Jung in a loose, dusty pink gown with a floppy ruffled collar. No wonder Jung got amorous thoughts: His comely patient keeps showing up dressed for bed.

Admittedly, this is tough to stage. Liebman frames the narrative around a lecture that the mature Spielrein is giving in her native Russia during World War II.

Outside are the sounds of Hitler's assault, and in quite poetic terms -- beautifully recited by Breese -- she alludes to the gathering storm in metaphors of fire, air and black oceans.

But Liebman leaves an out: the point of the lecture is to tell a fable about King Arthur, which is acted out, periodically interrupting the naturalistic narrative.

It also could lay some fanciful material over the stiff struggles among the three "real" characters. This was Radice's chance for some lively staging. Instead, we see it removed, through a scrim, and played -- by the same three actors -- in stingy little bundles of action. The play, I'm afraid, needed a more expansive vision.


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