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Washington Shakespeare Company Lulu

By • Nov 19th, 2009 • Category: Reviews
Lulu by Frank Wedekind, adaptation by Nicholas Wright
Washington Shakespeare Company
Clark Street Playhouse, Crytal City, VA
Through December 13th
To $36.50
2:30 with one intermission
Reviewed Opening Night, November 17th, 2009

From time to time a hit of jaunty despair and innocent corruption is bracing. “Bracing” — that would be the word for the current Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of Lulu. As will happen with two and a half hours of even the most clever construct of despair and corruption, the show gets saggy from time to time especially toward the end. But for the most part, director Christopher Henley‘s staging of Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s tragi-comic melodrama is nervy and engaging.

Wedekind (German, 1864-1918) was one of those splenetic masters of cynicism who flourished in central and northern Europe some 100 years ago. He has been overshadowed by Strindberg, Schniztler and Brecht. His plays are even messier that Strindberg’s, lewder than Schnitzler’s and more nihilistic than Brecht’s. But the recent Broadway musical, Spring Awakening, which is based on a Wedekind play, was so widely acclaimed that the mostly-of-academic-interest author has been getting out and about a bit more.

Like all of Wedekind’s work, Lulu emphasizes character, theme and style over plot. Wedekind was definitely not a master storyteller. Tight plotting was not at all his thing. The Nicholas Wright adaptation is actually based on two sprawly plays, The Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904), both of which featured the peppy but blighted protagonist Lulu. Like the 1929 movie and the 1937 opera adaptations, Wright’s play conflates the texts and prunes the content of Wedekind’s dramas. What he comes up with is definitely not a well-made play but it is a striking example of the expressionist aesthetic.

As befits a production of an expressionist classic, director Henley, his design team and his actors deliver a high-definition, low-nuance show. The set by Eric Grims is black, white and gray. The costumes by Greg Stevens are snappy overstatements of the excesses of years gone by. David Crandall‘s sound design includes jokey underscorings, like clanky, banging sound effects when political or economic collapse are mentioned. The intermission music includes a skanky, snarky male singer version of “Ooops, I Did It Again.”

If the original “Ooops” singer, Britney Spears, had been more into felonies and less into wholesome pretenses, she could stand as as a true descendant of Lulu. Lulu — in her put-upon, pouty way — goes in for murder and blackmail, always with a “Now look what you’ve gone and made me do” attitude. On the bright side, she enjoys seducing men of means. After a stint of education-by-incest, Lulu’s father put her on the street as a hooker when she was 10. Or so we are told. What is clear is that the father continues in a pimp role, sponging off of Lulu whenever he gets a chance.

Sara Barker, in the title role at the WSC, plays Lulu as a resourceful woman to whom things happen. Her resources are pretty simple and exaggerated — seduce, seduce, pout, pout — but that’s expressionism for you. Suitably strident are Karin Rosnizeck as a frustrated lesbian aristocrat who lusts after Lulu and Jay Hardee, Jack Miggins, Angel Torres and James Finley as men who scar, and are scarred by, Lulu. There’s a lot of double and triple casting (one actor playing two or three roles) in the WSC Lulu. As it happens, Finley plays a role that Wedekind reserved for himself in early productions: Jack the Ripper. Fortunately, Finley is one of those guys who looks better without clothing than with it, for he is completely naked for his big bloody butchery scene.

The WSC cast of 23 portrays vivid caricatures on the order of the satirized subjects in the paintings of the German expressionist painters Emil Nolde, George Grosz and James Ensor. The bourgeoisie and its parasitical hangers-on get no mercy.

Even trimmed to about a third of the Wedekind material, the WSC Lulu comes close to being an overdose of despair, even jaunty despair, and corruption, even innocent corruption. The final scenes are padded out with wordy, whiny soliloquies. The mind starts to wander. What was going on in middle and northern Europe during those years? Oh, yeah; Germany was headed toward two world wars. The “best lack conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” as the Anglo-Irish poet William Butler Yeats put it (in a different context, but during those same years). The sophisticated aesthetic and intellectual elites of Germany were getting all blasé, ironical and nihilistic. Meanwhile the desperate poor were being manipulated by nutsy demagogues, always on the lookout for scapegoats and hate objects. Not an unfamiliar scenario, come to think of it.

One definitely does not want to overdose on even the most bracing despair and corruption. They tend to sap the will to resist and struggle.

Disclaimer: Washington Shakespeare Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.

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