Performance & Media: Notes on The Irishman & Cats

TL;DR: The Irishman & Cats have some surprising similarities in their integration of computer technologies and live performance. I look at both with attention to the “live” performing body amid digital distortions. [2848 words]

Although it may seem odd to compare The Irishman (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2019) and Cats (dir. Tom Hooper, 2019), these two films were among the most interesting for their mutual engagements combining live performance and computer technology.

I saw Martin Scorsese’s film The Irishman (Netflix) twice without interruption for the 3.5 hours: once on mid-size television with modest resolution, and again in a single-screen cinema house (Regent Theatre, Toronto). Overall, I agree with critics who argue that the film is probably too long (to me, it felt rather ponderous at moments) and it’s unfortunate that all of the women who speak in the film have about a dozen lines split among them over 3.5 hours. But, I found the film interesting for other reasons, namely its intersection with digital media culture and movie history.

For similar reasons, I attended Cats, but only once in a multi-screen cineplex. Although the stage version was playing simultaneously in Toronto, I didn’t return to the stage musical. It’s a show I’ve seen a few times on stage and I wrote about in an chapter for the Blackwell Companion to T.S. Eliot (ed. David Chinitz, 2009). In case you’re interested, the essay is available here.

My first thought on Scorsese’s Irishman is its similarity to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). There are some fairly superficial similarities. Both are big-screen, large-scale films about outsized political figures more or less based in history. Scorsese focuses on the historical figures of Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Sheeran, and myriad other figures in the history of labor politics and the American mafia. We know it’s historical because upon introduction, many of the film’s characters, both central and peripheral, are frozen on screen to reveal the date and method of their (mostly violent) deaths. It’s a film knowingly created about the past and it makes repeated claims to historical truth and accuracy.

Citizen Kane though nominally fictional was modelled on William Randolph Hearst. Indeed, Welles’ film ventured closely enough to the truth that it prompted extensive efforts by Hearst and his executives to prevent the film’s release and thereafter to discredit it. (New evidence came to light in 2016 with details in a Guardian story that year.)

Both films begin with a central nagging question: what is the meaning of “rosebud”? and “Who killed Jimmy Hoffa?” They both feature early scenes of memories told from nursing homes by weary elderly men in wheelchairs: Robert De Niro as the aged Frank Sheeran and Joseph Cotton as Jedediah Leland. Both films retrace the histories of long and eventful lives at the extremes of their societies. But more interesting than the thematic and plot similarities are the parallels in their respective making, especially with respect to acting.

Key to both films is the role of the ensemble acting company. Welles worked with his young company from the Mercury Theatre and Scorsese with the informal cohort who have populated nearly every Scorsese film since I Call First (1967 with Harvey Keitel) and Mean Streets  (1973 with Keitel, De Niro). Scorsese highlights the centrality of a consistent company in his interviews about the film. As reported in his interview with Esquire magazine:

“De Niro is the only one who knows where I come from,” Scorsese says. […] That deep connection of experiences makes finding young actors to play young versions of De Niro, Pesci and Pacino pointless, he says.

“Even if they come from a similar area, the context of time is different. You’d have to explain who, you know, who [jazz singer] Billy Eckstine is or, you know, [singer and actor] Jo Stafford, as opposed to Patti Page as opposed to Ella Fitzgerald. And then you go into rock’n’roll. So he just knows the context.”

Perhaps ironic, given his claims of authenticity of time and place, Scorsese turned to contemporary digital techniques to de-age his actors, especially De Niro so that he could work exclusively with his core company. These techniques have received quite a bit of attention, including a recent story from the CBC-The National to which I contributed an interview (cf. “How digital de-aging is changing the face of movies“).

Because of the limitations of working with a fixed group across multiple decades in the plot, Welles also had to use new techniques to appropriately age his young actors. As in The Irishman, the special effects played a key role in the film. According to Citizen Kane‘s make-up artist, Maurice Seiderman: “When Kane came out in script form, Orson told all of us about the picture and said that the most important aspect was the makeup” (see “Making Up KaneFilm Comment, 1978). By many accounts, Welles’ make-up took up to 3-4 hours preparation before filming.

So what does this have to do with Cats?

As with both The Irishman and Citizen Kane, the film Cats faces a fundamental problem: how to create convincing distortions of the human actor on screen. Welles uses make-up and the actors’ physicality to age his characters across multiple decades, sometimes within the same film sequence (e.g., the wonderful breakfast-table sequence that details the decline of the Kane marriage). Scorsese uses the latest in computer technologies–specifically, the MEDUSA facial capture system from ILM–to de-age the faces and hands of his actors, while also employing a “movement analyst” to assist with the physical portrayal across decades.

[Aside: Viewers have debated the credibility of these effects, including the unnatural smoothness of De Niro’s face in the flashback sequence to Frank Sheeran’s service in World War II. To my eye, De Niro’s digitally altered face closely resembles the central character from the videogame Call of Duty: WWII:


It may be that viewers who have received more WWII history from Call of Duty than from, say, Ken Burns’s documentary miniseries The War, will find Scorsese’s depiction the most convincing. There is more to say about the impact of videogames on the historical imagination, but that’s for another post or two.]

The film Cats (2019) doesn’t alter its characters in time, but rather in species, and here, it draws a clear parallel to the juxtaposition of The Irishman and Citizen Kane. Welles started as a theatre director, so he applies the techniques of theatre to cinema: make-up, costume, physicality, voice, and ensemble acting. Even as he shares with Welles an affinity for a consistent company of actors, Scorsese applies the latest techniques of screen special effects. Tom Hooper is a film and television director, who found success adapting the popular musical Les Mirerable (2012) to the screen. In Cats, Hooper adapts a stage production originally created through the techniques Welles used in Citizen Kane (make-up, costume, physicality), and replaces them with computer effects (created by Mill Film) not unlike those used in The Irishman: motion capture, digital animations.

Where Hooper and Cats fall short, however, is from a fundamental misunderstanding of the original source material. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score for Cats, though catchy is largely repetitive and, as many others have observed derivative from other sources (hello, Puccini!). The lyrics are drawn from T.S. Eliot’s poems written for his friends’ children. Although occasionally clever, the lyrics often veer into the ridiculous, as in the repeated chorus in “The Addressing of Cats”: “So first, your memory I’ll jog / And say: a cat is not a dog.”

Seeing only the 2019 version, one might wonder how the original show became a success. Having seen the show a few times in the 1980s, what I remember made the original so engaging was that it was first and foremost a musical about dancing. All of the other stage effects, including costumes, make-up, and scenery were carefully calibrated to create illusions of scale and immersion within the world. As I recall, the original production sent chorus dancers into the house with blinking cat eyes that in the dark were startling in their ability to convincingly convey the human dancers as cats (especially for those of us under 10 years old).

The original stage set included an oversized tire, debris, and trashcans that established the world and scale for the dancing cats. The original costumes augmented the dancers’ bodies in part by making their heads larger and furrier (to hide their human ears) and with colors and patterns that drew attention to the lines of the dancers and their movements. What many of us marvelled at in the original stage production was not that the humans looked like cats, but that recognizably human dancers could move like cats, including choreography well beyond the abilities of us normal humans. It’s a show about virtuosic dancing, which is why there’s no real plot and it doesn’t really matter.

As I’ve written before, Cats is basically A Chorus Line (1975) for felines. The show is structured as a series of  introductions and thus provides little more than an excuse for exceptionally talented and skilled performers to show off what they can do. There’s a fairly general “I Want” song early in both–“I Hope I Get It” and “Invitation to the Jellicle Ball”–framed by a key selection: casting for a show and the jellicle choice. Both shows end with the selection. That’s it. No plot twists, no intrigue. At the beginning, there’s a choice to be made, and by the end, someone makes it. End of show. In between, performers perform individual numbers and join in a few full-stage ensemble pieces. In short, it’s mostly about virtuosic dancing with a few opportunities for exceptional singers, who are given key moment for arias: Old Deuteronomy is a challenging bass part in the original; Grizabella is given the show-stopping number, “Memory.” (Remember, Webber wanted to be an opera composer and often imagined his shows as contemporary operas.) But, even allowing for a few key vocal numbers, the show is really about dancers.

The importance of dancing was acknowledged in the original Cats poster image, which featured tiny dancing bodies as the pupils of the cats’ eyes:


Cats Broadway poster (1981)

Director Hooper is presumably aware of the importance of dancing in Cats. He casts his lead with Francesca Hayward, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet in London (the make-up and costuming choices for her require a whole other post), and the narrator-cat Munkustrap is played by Robbie Fairchild formerly of the New York City Ballet.  However, Hooper’s respect for dancing seems to stop with the casting decisions.

The movements by the individual performers are obscured by their digital costumes, rather than augmented by them. The cinematography keeps up a fairly rapid editing pace, such that there’s little opportunity to appreciate the movements within a given number. This constantly moving environment also seems to change scale constantly. (The Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer scene felt particularly off. What cat paw fits loosely through a human-sized ring? See below.)

Screen Shot 2020-01-04 at 10.28.31

Screencapture: Francesca Hayward as Victoria in Cats (2019)

Elsewhere, Hooper seems to take the original text literally. The film’s climactic scene (such as it is) centers on a rescue of Old Deuteronomy from a barge on the Thames, where she and other cats have been captured by Macavity. Mr. Mistoffelees must successfully perform magic to bring the older cat back. That he fails multiple times before success seems to justify the repeated original lyrics: “Oh, well I never, was there ever / A cat so clever as magical / Mr. Mistoffelees.” But taking his magic literally means that Eliot’s wit in the original poems, which anthropomorphized very typical actions of cats as somehow magical and mysterious, is lost.

The joke of this song in particular is that the mischief of cats–sneaking food and playing with random objects–is recast as magic.

He can play any trick with a cork
Or a spoon and a bit of fish paste
If you look for a knife or a fork
And you think it was merely misplaced

You have seen it one moment
And then it is gone
But you find it next week
Lying out on the lawn

It’s not just the text that Hooper takes too literally. Everything is portrayed in actuality: the songs, the dance, the setting, the costumes, the story (such as it is). But, it is the attempt to use the computer-generated imagery to create more realistic cats that most severely limits the film. Instead of augmenting the human heads with fur, he uses digital effects to create a more realistic cat-like head. Compare Elaine Page as Grizabella with Jennifer Hudson in the role:

On the one hand, Hudson’s digitally augmented appearance seems more realistically cat-like. She has fur instead of layered human-like hair and a furry neck and chest. Elaine Page’s costume is pretty clearly a wig and coat designed to obscure but not obliterate her human form. (Remember, she’s one of a few signing cats; the dancing cats perform almost exclusively in skin-tight leotards.) However, these differences make Hudson’s “coat” appear all the stranger. If we can see her own “fur” what is she wearing on top? The hide of a deceased relative or stranger? (The same effect occurs with Judi Dench’s Old Deuteronomy, who appears to be wearing at least one or two other cats.)

Throughout the film, the digital effects in costume and make-up draw our attention away the performing body to the juxtaposition between the real and the virtual. The digital overwhelm is, oddly enough, in contradiction to Hooper’s claims that the film works to maintain the “live” performances on screen:

It’s really more live-action than you realize in the sense that we shot it all live on set. With a couple of exceptions of Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly, where obviously it would be insane to build an oversized version of Piccadilly Circus. We built this world at sort of three times scale, so that humans could be looking at cats’ relation with the world. And my great dream with the visual effects was to find a way to add … To make the actors feline while preserving their faces and their real performances, and the integrity of what they did as actors and singers. To preserve the integrity of their live dance. (Hooper interview for Observer, 2019)

There are many excellent examples of dance on screen, so it’s not as if “real performances” by actors and dancers haven’t been compellingly conveyed in other films. I’m thinking of Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952) and West Side Story (dir. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961); as well as more recent Hairspray (dir. Adam Shankman, 2007) and even La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle, 2016). The latter featured performers with signing and dancing skills far inferior to those cast in Cats, but managed to create far more compelling musical numbers.

In short, it is Hooper’s (mis)use of computer effects that destroys this sense of the live performing body, distorting not only the actual physical bodies of his performers (and weirdly fetishizing them, as various critiques have noted), but also their movements. And, like The Irishman, the impetus behind this choice appears to be a misguided sense of “authenticity.” That is, both The Irishman and Cats seem to be fundamentally misunderstanding what makes a particular acting performance compelling on screen.

The unnatural smoothness of De Niro works better in The Irishman because his blank stoicism is, in fact, a feature of his character and the times. Frank Sheeran is a largely blank canvas onto which others project their directives. He is fundamentally inexpressive and therefore unknowable. As Jimmy Hoffa says to Sheeran at one point, “Frank, you never reveal how you feel.” There’s also the way in which Hollywood cinema is always intent on preserving actors’ youth and is little else, if not a de-aging machine.

But, in Cats, the joy of the show comes from seeing through the artifice of the cats’ portray to the sophistication and skill of the performers underneath the costume and make-up. (Watch some of the online footage from professional stage versions and you’ll see what I mean.) Stage choreography, including real-time synchronization among performers, balance, and physical control is impressive because of the technical challenge. When such techniques are rendered digitally–as in the strange dancing cockroaches scene and extensive use of rigging in Hooper’s dance sequences–we tend to dismiss the whole thing as digital fakery. Thus, the very real skill and technique of the performers is lost.

Much of my recent academic writing has been about the negotiations of ostensibly live performance and distortions in recorded and digital media (more here, if you’re so inclined). I’m not convinced that one form of acting is better than the other and I suspect that improved techniques in digital augmentation will continue to shape actors’ performances on stage and all kinds of screens. However, there is clearly a danger in forgetting the pleasures of watching exceptional human bodies perform, even if they’re made to look older or dressed up as cats. One hopes that the next time Hollywood moves a big-budget stage show to the screen, they will remember to include a few more theatre people behind the camera and not just in front.





Documentary Media: Contradiction in Terms?

By coincidence I happened to see the new Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy (dir. Asif Kapadia, 2015), the same weekend that I finally got around to watching Noah Baumbach’s 2014 While We’re Young. It’s an interesting pairing with regard to contemporary documentary media. Most interestingingly, Baumbach’s film points to what might become of documentary filmmaking in the wake of everyone documenting themselves all the time. It’s a door opened, and Kapadia seems to walk right through it. Taken together, they got me thinking about what we mean by documentary media today (no longer only films) and the larger social and cultural implications of these changing media and representational practices.

Like much of his work, Baumbach’s film positions (traps?) a mildly unlikable Gen-Xer (Ben Stiller as Josh) between the superiority of his more successful Baby-Boomer father-in-law Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin) and the freedom of a millennial hipster, Jamie (played by perhaps the iconic ultra-cool millennial, Adam Driver from Lena Dunham’s “Girls”). The women in the film are relevant, if not really important and certainly not essential to the film’s main ideas. The film primarily focuses on the relationships among the three men, each standing in as a generational everyman for his peers. These are roles that Grodin (e.g., Rosemary’s Baby – 1968, Heaven Can Wait – 1978, and Midnight Run – 1988) and Stiller (e.g., Reality Bites – 1994, The Cable Guy – 1996, There’s Something About Mary 1998, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – 2013) have played often and effectively throughout their careers, and one that Driver is developing in his own distinctive way (Girls – 2012, Inside Llewyn Davis – 2013, This Is Where I Leave You – 2014). All three actors occupy a category of the inwardly quirky, socially awkward, yet familiar and ordinary character actor.

In Baumbach’s film, all three men are documentary filmmakers, roles that define them as individuals, their respective generational situations, and more importantly, their status with regard to each other. As one might expect from Baumbach’s other representations of generational (in)equality (e.g., The Squid and the Whale 2005), Stiller’s middle-aged Josh does not fare well in the trio. He’s been trying for more than a decade to finish a documentary film (shown to us as rambling, incoherent interview excerpts with a Noam Chomsky-esque intellectual who is not remotely compelling), and now finds himself reinvigorated by a developing friendship with Jamie, a young aspiring filmmaker. Josh moves from trying to imitate Leslie to an attempt to imitate Jamie, humorous, yet pathetic gestures  including a misguided evening with hallucinogens and his adoption of the unfortunate fedora trend. Unfortunately for Josh, it is Jamie who emerges as Grodin’s artistic successor. Although the film’s intergenerational power struggles are compelling, more interesting to me is Baumbach’s not-so-subtle critique of documentary filmmaking, interlaid among the generational anxieties.

In the film’s climactic scene, Josh confronts Jamie about his manipulation and lack of ethics in his fabricated construction of Jamie’s documentary project. Tellingly, their dispute occurs backstage during Leslie’s acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award in documentary films.  Echoing the major points on cinematic authenticity that comprise most of Leslie’s speech, Josh challenges Jamie’s approach as undermining the very meaning of documentary cinema in language that quickly reveals the generational tensions underpinning their relationship.

Josh: If everyone is filming everything, what’s a documentary anymore? It has no meaning, it’s just some shit you recorded!

Is that old man talk?

Maybe it is. You kids have been told you can do anything. You think everything
is out there for you to have. It’s not.

Jamie: Nobody owns anything. If I hear a song I like, or a story, it’s mine. It’s mine to use. It’s everybody’s.

Josh: No, it isn’t! That’s not sharing, Jamie, that’s stealing.

Jamie: That’s old man talk.

Josh: I am an old man!

The bitter irony, of course, is that the position Josh so passionately espouses is precisely that for which Leslie is being rewarded. Yet when Josh presents Jamie’s ethical manipulations to Leslie, the older main praises Jamie and admits he doesn’t care about the parts that were manipulated. Such is the fate of Generation X.

Baumbach’s film was released in September 2014 at the Toronto Film Festival. Eight months later, Kapadia’s documentary about singer Amy Winehouse, Amy, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Although the Winehouse documentary was in process before the release of Baumbach’s film, the fictional take on the future of documentaries feels prescient in Kapadia’s film.

Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, Winehouse’s film, although she was never able to finish it herself.

Most of the material in Kapadia’s film was generated by Winehouse herself. The documentary follows the rise and downfall of the singer from her beginnings in London to global fame, drug addiction and alcoholism, eating disorders, and untimely death. However sad and unfortunate (and, as the film seems to argue, preventable), Winehouse’s narrative is not unusual, particularly not for an international music celebrity. What makes this depiction most compelling is not the details of her short, troubled career, but that it is a documentary rendered overwhelming through social media recordings and private documents. Whereas past documentarians dug through archives of written and sometime photographic records (filmmaker Ken Burns has his own named photographic effect in Apple’s video program, iMovie), here Kapadia combs through Winehouse’s own collection of self recordings. These aren’t just home movies that have found their way into a documentaries since recording equipment became accessible to a wider population of consumers (Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation from 2003 is a particularly relevant example). These are recordings (most on video cameras and mobile phones) as a kind of running documentary of the self and often deliberately pointing to the future when these images will be part of a famous professional personae.

Home movies before digital technology were mostly private creations, made for family and friends. The time and expense required to shoot and develop the film and the need for a projector (to say nothing of the quality of the recordings or their content) meant that people rarely viewed their personal super 8 films outside the home. VHS, Super-8, and other videotape-based systems were a little easier to shoot and circulate, but very difficult and time-consuming to edit and thus even if they could be watched, were rarely viewed by anyone beyond close friends and family. (As anecdotal evidence, let me refer to the large box in my basement containing hours and hours of videotapes of babies doing very little. Without disrespect to the babies or their devoted videographers, these documents are unlikely to be viewed repeatedly by even the most devoted family members.) All of this changes when digital recordings made filming easier and cheaper to record and, subsequently simple to edit and distribute.

Born in 1983, Winehouse was 12 when the first DV tapes appeared and by the time she started her career at age 16 in 1999, social media was emerging first with peer-to-peer music sharing through Napster in 1999 and then penetrating other areas of youth culture: Friendster in 2002, Myspace in 2002-03, Facebook at Harvard in 2004 and widely available in 2005. Thus Winehouse’s career, echoed in the majority of the self-recorded videos used in the film, overlaps this transition from the private home movie to the self-conscious social media recording of mobile phone cameras and social media sites now integrated for frictionless capture and distribution of video images (e.g., Vine, Instagram videos, iCloud sharing, etc.). It’s a growing realization that we see in the evolution of the videos that Winehouse and her friends record.

Watching the two films together raises some intriguing questions about documentary cinema, social media, and their ethics. What Baumbach’s film points to in its climactic confrontation between Josh and Jamie is precisely what Kapadia’s project elides; that is, not just what gets depicted in the film, but who controls the images and their representation. Josh’s complaint with Jamie isn’t that he represents something inaccurate in his film; it’s that he fakes how he makes it. Jamie pretends to randomly find a former friend through Facebook, a set-up for the documentary known to everyone but Josh, who unwittingly provides authentic reactions to the fake set-up. Josh is angry because Jamie seems not to respect his audience, the material, or the process for the representation.

Kapadia creates a film guided by faith in the raw, unpolished authenticity of Winehouse’s talent as compellingly evidenced by her own recordings. Her abilities are clear in even the earliest and roughest recordings and as such, they serve to demonstrate not only Winehouse’s potential as an artist, but also her own authentic personality: what she looked like as a kid, before the make-up, drug use, and stage life that would soon define her publicly and hold her up to ridicule. Strikingly, some of the earliest recording show Winehouse hiding from the camera. She holds up her hands to block the camera’s view, even hiding under a blanket while her friends gleefully record an early morning. Watching these images and knowing the eventual outcome, I was struck by the way in which the scene plays as a child-like dress rehearsal for the paparazzi nightmares to come.

Such images establish the film’s larger theme of Winehouse as the reluctant talent; the vulnerable artist whose insecurities opened up the possibility for her eventual destruction by the fame she (ambivalently) sought. Kapadia’s juxtaposition of Winehouse’s own images with the media representations suggests is that we–the greedy, demanding viewing audience–are responsible for her destruction. This was the reaction most noted in reviews of the film and repeated in the film’s marketing campaign. To wit, the following quotes appear in the first 30 seconds of the film’s trailer:

  • “A case study of celebrity’s crushing onslaught and an indictment of its tabloid apparatus.” Associated Press
  • “Were the page views & ratings worth it? At the cost of destroying a vulnerable young woman?” BET
  • “Reveals the lethal effects of celebrity.” Vulture
  • “A requiem for her but it is also a condemnation of us.” flickfilosopher

But, this perspective ignores an important reality in the film: that most of the recordings are not from paparazzi or hungry media reporters, but from Winehouse herself.

The question of responsibility in this seems less interesting than the echo of Josh’s complaint in While We’re Young: who owns the images? Just because they’re out there, does that mean that they are freely available to us all? At a certain point, it’s clear that Winehouse lost control of her own narrative (assuming that she ever had this control in the first place; certainly a point for contention). But what’s clear is that Kapadia’s manipulation of the images and his relation to them is never revealed by the film. To whom do such images belong and how do we hold his role accountable? In watching the film, aren’t we just repeating the sins of exploitation that the movie rails against?

Seeing both films reminded me that the images we share online as not so different fundamentally than the performances by celebrities and that we may have as little control over their fate (though the size of our audiences may differ greatly). I’m also struck by the fact that in an age of ubiquitous recording and documentation, the documentary film may never be the same again.

Laughing Out Lulu

Who’s afraid of a little controversy? Not Megan Callahan, the director whose Lulu at Torn Space Theater (through October 12) takes an old story in exciting new directions. Nor is she afraid of humor: I’ve never laughed this much at a Torn Space show. It’s an unexpected but fascinating combination and one too rarely seen.Pandora's_Box_(film)

Lulu is, after all, the quintessential femme fatale (“die verhängnisvolle Frau”): the irresistible and immoral woman, who seduces all men (and the occasional lesbian) to their inevitable doom. As realized by Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film Pandora’s Box, Lulu became the global symbol of indulgence and immorality in the 1920s. Seductive and emasculating, Lulu is a familiar story of the beautiful woman as the source of all evil. Wedekind didn’t invent the sexual woman as destroyer of the good in men, but his creation served to popularize the image. After all, two of his central characters have the last name Schöning (Schönheit means beauty in German). Of course, Lulu isn’t deliberately evil since she doesn’t exhibit any of her own conscious power. She’s not trying to be cruel; she’s just born that way. Or, as Wedekind called her, she is the original, primal (“die Urform”) form of woman.

As realized in Callahan’s fascinating new version, Lulu comes alive in a radical new take on the old myth of feminine beauty destroying misguided, but innocent men. No longer a “naturally” dangerous sexuality, Lulu lives among competing forces, material needs, and the oppressive sexual desires of the many men who surround her.

10648310_10154657097945578_8712119259535423437_oThe new adaptation by dramaturg Katie Mallinson deftly moves the locus of Lulu famed debauchery to New York and Paris in the lead up to the global financial crisis (2006-2008, according to the program). Lulu’s experience as the object of desire is cast as ubiquitous throughout contemporary culture, even if we don’t recognize the earlier source material. Her opening pose in a Marilyn Monroe costume, for example, reminds us of femininity’s appeal when associated with tragically doomed women. Jessica Wegrzyn’s costumes subtly reinforce this iconography, while Brian Milbrand’s videos lend contemporary specificity to a 100+ year myth, linking the exploitation of Lulu’s sexuality (she is “worth” $20 million) to the global art market, contemporary human trafficking, and confused mass media messages communicated to women and girls. Listen for one particularly brilliant audio edit of Katie Couric talking about the risks of teenage sex and the release of the film Sex in the City. It’s worth the price of admission all by itself.

This is not to say that Callahan and company have created an educational theatre experience (and for goodness sake, don’t bring the kids). There’s not much in the way of teaching here. Instead the show shifts the focus from the singular notion of Lulu as the source of men’s destruction to a more complicated and engaging network of human sexual culpability. Sex in this context is not the result of a dangerous female nature, but one of many forces intertwining people–both men and women–within larger web of money, power, and material needs. It’s telling that the final scene leaves all of the characters suffering not from a lack of sexual fulfillment but literally starving to death.

What might have become a stultifying lesson in gender politics instead becomes an engaging, occasionally disturbing exploration of contemporary culture in which art, money, and sex become indistinguishable from each other as weapons. Tellingly, the entire set is a giant bed, covered in bouncing mattresses that add a perverse level of playfulness to the activities of its characters. In a nod to the play’s implicit voyeurism, various playing areas are separated by window blinds that characters manipulate throughout the show. Kristina Siegel’s set further provides a dynamic environment for the play’s physically adept performers who exploit the various surfaces to full effect. Christopher Evans as Schwarz, the pathetic, self-absorbed painter, flings himself from bed to bed in absurd anguish, while PJ Tighe as Alva Schöning humps nearly every corner of the set in a hilariously overblown demonstration of sexual frustration. Jon Joy, a frequent contributor to Torn Space productions, lends his unique and always compelling presence to the cast. Watching the high-intensity physical effort, it’s not surprising that the production included Nicole M. Dilwig as “Movement Consultant.”

Anchoring the cast is Sophie Howes as Lulu, who articulates an emotional range not often seen in Lulu, a character often played as emotionally unperturbed (all the better to destroy the emotional wrecks of the men who flock to her; again, see Louise Brooks’s portrayal). Howes’s emotional desperation rises and falls in response to her circumstances and these emotional shifts do not emerge from the chaos Lulu causes, but instead result from the overwrought reactions of the men who surround her. Howes’s performance against the backdrop of Milbrand’s video deepens and compellingly updates the myth of Lulu. This is not a Lulu born to haunt and torture innocent men, but a figure constructed by a society obsessed with sex but ambivalent about its obsessions.

For all of her revisions, Callahan and Mallinson’s version is ultimately much truer to the original than, say, the 2006 musical adaptation. The musical exploited the sexuality of Wedekind’s script to totally different and deliberately entertaining ends. (See Shawn-Marie Garrett’s excellent review for more on this.) Despite being branded a pornographer, Wedekind wasn’t writing his plays for pleasure. For all of his own sexism, he wrote to challenge and disturb the bourgeois moralists of his time, radically deviating from both the familiar content and dramatic structure. The social critique essential to his plays is too often stripped away in versions of his work that play to the sexual titillation at the expense of thought. Here, Callahan has managed to capture the fun of Wedekind’s work while also fully realizing his social critique. It’s a tricky move, but ultimately effective.

There are still some areas, particularly in the translation, that can be further refined. Translations from German texts sometimes retain rhythms of the original, which can sound clunky in US English. Some of the scenes could be further cut, since Wedekind was writing for an audience more accustomed to listening to text than today’s more visually oriented audiences. That said, I saw the show with a large group of students from both the University at Buffalo and Daemen College who remained engaged.

You don’t have to be a theatre student to enjoy this, but maybe it helps. Certainly, Lulu is not to everyone’s taste. Some will love it; others loathe it. And that’s a good thing. As a member of the Board of Directors for Torn Space Theater, I’ve always appreciated the adventurous quality of  TST’s productions, even when personally challenged by them. Lulu is recognizable within the theatre’s aesthetic, but is more subtly rendered, particularly in the costumes and video imagery. Sometimes Milbrand’s video images can overwhelm the space and actors, often as an intended effect. Here, however, his images meld effortlessly with the performances and text, creating a cohesion that allows the performers to stand out in a world that is both familiar and strange; as recognizable as it is horrible. The costumes, too, have more variety and without drawing overt attention remind us of the vulnerability of the bodies at work. Experimental theatre is not often known for its subtlety and restraint, but the aesthetic choices here convey a careful crafting that is worth seeing in action.

Howes is also an unexpected but brilliant choice. Unlike TST’s women characters who often appear as cold, seemingly empty or malicious figures, Howes exhibits a warmth and (dare I say?) vulnerability that enriches the figure of Lulu and deepens the experience of the play. She is not the familiar seductress who destroys the lives of those and deserves her ultimate punishment, but a more fully realized human being. Howes’s Lulu is a more complex figure, who is at times culpable and yet also victimized by a world she tries to navigate but often fails to understand. What this production makes clear is that the ubiquity of sexual exploitation and degradation is damaging to everyone, women and men. Given the current attention to the pervasiveness of sexual violence against women, both physical and rhetorical, this production of a 1904 play could hardly be more relevant today.

It’s certainly an original vision for both Wedekind and Torn Space, perhaps the best reason of all to see a new show.