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.