Two tales of troubled, wealthy, sexually liberated anti-heroines in two months? Washington Shakespeare Company is practically demanding we stack up the juicy escapades of Lulu against their artful and amply entertaining season opener Camille: A Tearjerker. In both cases, an ill-fated ingénue rides the ups and downs of high society, trailing a daisychain of dandy, randy gentlemen toward a tragic final act. But while Marguerite Gautier is an unflappable egoist, adored all the more for her offhand dismissals of lonely boys, little Lulu is always up for a romp. Her girlish attentions glut the hearts of each of her serial bedmates until, in true Victorian form, the grim consequences of excess come sliding under the door.
This 2001 adaptation by Nicholas Wright of the Lulu story – condensed from several dramatic writings by the German satirist Frank Wedekind, who also wrote Spring Awakening – proves a sturdy, efficient melodrama. The dialogue, however, full of mannered gibes and airy proclamations, is about as enabling as a pair of clogs, and it takes the punchy, playful ethos of this theater company to successfully dance in them.
Led by director Christopher Henley, they mostly succeed, as our mysterious waif (Sara Barker) makes her way from man to man in Munich, Paris, and finally London, adopting and discarding aliases along the way (Lulu, Eve, Mignon, Mitzi, Katya) like so many temporary bits of clothing. The men eat her up, breathing lustful epithets (“She’s like a nude with clothes on!”) and lob compliments over the plate for her to snatch up with a grin. “She looks better from this angle,” says the proud Dr. Goll (Allan Jirikowic), watching her pose in a Pierrot outfit for a painter. “I look better from every angle,” she grins.
The painter, Eduard Schwarz (James Finley) is prone to dropping his brush when Lulu speaks. He’s a flushed, boyish hunk with big hands and little ideas – one in an eclectic line of lovers that includes the embittered Doctor Schoning (Angel Torres), his freewheeling son Alwa (Jay Hardee), the acerbic acrobat Rodrigo (S. Lewis Feemster)… but given the drastic twists that keep Lulu jumping from man to man, it’s probably best not to count the smitten before they’re dispatched.
Given the focus on Lulu, it’s inevitable that Sara Barker’s acting sets much of the tone for the show. What she creates is a moving glimpse of a sad, kittenish woman who always – but just barely – manages to mask a creeping sense of dread and disgust under yet another coquettish routine. A different actress might take up Lulu’s ribald sexual aggression with more fervor. But Barker is a more simmering, introspective performer by nature. Most recently, in 4:48 Psychosis at Factory 449, she etched a sharp, frightening portrait of depression and flung it at us like a javelin. Here, too, she taps a well of emotional detail, managing to erect a strong, sexy persona while still sending us glimpses of the quavering little girl behind the façade.
The most recent DC run of Lulu in 2001 – directed by Jonathan Kent for London’s touring Almeida Theatre – emphasized the dark and seamy. Here, by contrast, an enjoyably spacious parlor interior by Eric Grims and fantastic costumes by Greg Stevens hit the bright notes, coating this playground of regal debauchery in shades of off-white and cream. The comic pay-off is big, especially in a euphoric dinner scene with Barker and Hardee that makes eating your vegetables look like fun.
It’s in the second half that Lulu, like its titular lady, succumbs to an identity crisis, caught in limbo between wacky farce and stark, moralistic tragedy. On the way to its gruesome conclusion, the final acts trade increasingly in the minor plot twists of nasty supporting players, and talented actors (among them Frank Britton and Tony Bullock) can’t mold their characters into much more than fleeting sketches.
The final scene, bloody and horrifying, is shocking to witness but ultimately lacks poignancy, in part because of the jarringly unexpected change of tone. With some foreshadowing, we might have seen Lulu’s tragic end as a result of her actions, but as staged, her demise merely seems the result of one incredibly unlucky final night, and any moral on love and lust is muddied as a result.
Lulu’s final destination may be unseemly, but her journey is compelling, and Henley and the company map it out with sly, spirited energy. In a number of wonderful moments throughout, we share in Lulu’s fascination with her own objectification. Spun in an endless cycle of reverence and abuse, it’s small wonder that eventually, when she looks into a man’s eyes, all she can see is herself looking back.
By Frank Wedekind
Adapted by Nicholas Wright
Directed by Christopher Henley
Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles