Siren Song: The Dreadful Allure of 'Lulu'

By Nelson Pressley Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, June 22, 2001

Frank Wedekind's lurid, seldom-staged "Lulu" revolves around one of the most notorious femmes fatales ever created; it's a macabre fantasia on sex and death. Director Jonathan Kent's captivating staging refines the theme to watching and fantasizing: the prelude to and craving for sex and death. Lust-drunk characters murmur about committing sex crimes; they threaten to martyr themselves at the provocative, pliant Lulu's feet. Then they do it. Perhaps the chief thing that the Almeida Theatre's calculatingly strange production proves about Wedekind's 19th-century drama is that although it's awkward, it's certainly playable.

This "Lulu," which opened Wednesday night at the Eisenhower Theater as the last play in the Kennedy Center's festival of British arts, is a complicated show -- almost distastefully icy and arch in the first act, haunting and piteous in the second. But the story really moves in Kent's cleverly acted, darkly alluring production. Watching is a persistent motif, though of course these characters do a lot more than look. They grapple, they grope, they grind; the show drips with sex. (Between this and the messy, convincing violence, this "Lulu" -- like any "Lulu" worth its salt -- is for mature audiences only.) Between the come-ons, adultery, blackmail and murder, much of which is greeted with dry laughter by the brittle characters, there is no shortage of action. But the intoxicated gaze, through which Lulu's admirers pour their various desires as if she were an empty vessel, is critical to Kent. The show opens with a mysterious figure seated at the edge of the stage; like the audience, he's on the outside of a grimy row of panes looking in at Lulu. In a funny, creepy bit, two characters hold up a Pierrot costume of Lulu's and breathlessly discuss how her body fits into it. The physical details of their points of interest (if not of her actual body) seem to spring to life as they fondle the garment with rapturous specificity. It's a tremendously striking image of Lulu as the stuff of dreams. And then there she is in the flesh. Lithe star Anna Friel flutters around the stage in that sheer Pierrot outfit, and the show does more than dare you to stare at her ripe body. It begs you to.

The show is a grim tour through Lulu's lovers, admirers and would-be possessors. Dr. Goll, Lulu's portly old husband, has commissioned a painting of her by Eduard Schwarz, a young artist. When Goll catches Schwarz and Lulu in a compromising position on a tiger-skin rug, he keels over dead, and Schwarz ascends to the position of Lulu's husband. You'd think the artist, played like an adolescent with a crush by James Hillier, would be less prone to shock. But he's a dreamer who christens Lulu "Eve"; all of her men have their own pet names for her. The deadly pattern repeats, yet Dr. Schoning, Lulu's longtime clandestine lover, marries her anyway. For a number of reasons, there's no way out of it. And so it goes, with the survivors often laughing over the bodies as they walk away from the wreckage.

The acting has a nefarious, underworld quality; a seamy desperation hangs in the air that makes it almost understandable when characters writhe on the floor and beg for one another. (Subtlety wasn't among Wedekind's virtues; in style and substance, this is a chronicle of excess.) Alan Howard sets a sinister tone as Dr. Schoning, who sees himself as Lulu's puppet master -- until he begins to get played himself. Howard speaks with a hard edge in his voice and uses Schoning's cane to prod Lulu's privates at will; he's an elegant but intimidating degenerate.

Oliver Milburn has a hungry, dangerous smile as Dr. Schoning's son, and Tom Georgeson is a wily old roughneck as Schigolch, the man who raised Lulu (he may or may not be her father). Johanna ter Steege powers her way through desperate rants as the yearning Countess of Geschwitz, and Peter Sullivan oozes treachery as Jack, the dark figure who watches from the periphery until "Lulu" nears its end and the scene shifts to from Germany and Paris to London.

Friel is ravishing, and with her sprightly energy and directness she comes awfully close to being the "earth spirit" that was the title of one of the two plays that make up this 2 1/2-hour "Lulu." (The adaptation is by Nicholas Wright, from a translation by Wes Williams.) Friel's Lulu is a true femme fatale in Act 1, consciously luring men in for her pleasure. But by Act 2, she seems slightly broken. Her strut has become a wobble, and the show begins to think less about what Lulu does to men than about what men have done to her, apparently since she was quite young. Kent arranges for a gang to gather like vultures behind another grimy windowpane as a young man attempts to seduce an innocent young girl, and I've never seen a group of men in tuxedos look more frighteningly predatory.

A quartet plays moody music during the scene changes, tunes that amount to siren songs to death. It helps thicken the atmosphere with emotion, which is one of the things that really develop in this show. The flip, arch quality of the early going deepens into a disquieting experience that, among other things, draws a very thin line between life and death, with sex perched right on the razor's edge.

Lulu, by Frank Wedekind, adapted by Nicholas Wright from a translation by Wes Williams. Directed by Jonathan Kent. Set, Rob Howell; lighting, Mark Henderson; music, Jonathan Dove; sound, John A. Leonard. With Imogen Slaughter, Leon Lissek, Andrew Ufondu, Jason Pitt, Sid Mitchell, Samia Akudo, Marella Oppenheim, Miles Richardson, Anna Maguire and Francesca Murray-Fuentes. Through July 15 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Call 202-467-4600. © 2001 The Washington Post Company

Men were her victims, or so she thought

The lobbyists for gun control and nuclear disarmament have yet to register complaints about Anna Friel's legs, which are currently gracing the stage of the Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

But there is little question that as the heroine of Frank Wedekind's ''Lulu,'' in the vivacious visiting production from the Almeida Theater of London, Ms. Friel is standing on a pair of extremely lethal weapons. This young British actress, known to Broadway audiences as the self-destructive vixen of ''Closer,'' is a small woman.

Yet framed by clothes hemmed at or slit to the northernmost regions of her thighs, her legs seem to stretch from here to eternity, stealing the attention from the busy, arty scenery that surrounds her. They bring to mind a time when mere glimpses of stocking were shocking, and a woman's exposed lower limbs were perceived as stairways to heaven or hell.

This dishing up of cheesecake is not gratuitous. Wedekind's fabled study of sexual hypocrisy at the turn of the century features characters who wonder if Lulu's legs don't get jealous of each other and who prostrate themselves at her bare feet, their eyes climbing hopefully upward.

In this tasty but uneven production, directed by Jonathan Kent, those eyes rarely make it to Ms. Friel's China-doll face. Nor does this Lulu, a hard-core pragmatist whose flexible legs bend themselves into a remarkably varied code of invitations, seem to want it otherwise. She knows where the center of power is.

The satiric and comic implications of men going mad over the promises of Lulu's legs are mined with gleeful energy in this streamlined version of Wedekind's masterwork, which has been adapted by the English playwright Nicholas Wright from a translation by Wes Williams. The show, part of the Kennedy Center's festival of arts from the United Kingdom, runs through July 15.

Wedekind's Lulu is most widely known today for her inspired translation into opera (Alban Berg's ''Lulu'') and silent film (G. W. Pabst's ''Pandora's Box''). Audience members familiar with those works may be startled by the breeziness of the Almeida's take on the same material.

Mr. Kent -- familiar to Broadway audiences for his stylish presentations of Diana Rigg in ''Medea'' and Ralph Fiennes in ''Hamlet'' -- has thinned out the aura of erotic mystery immortally conjured by Berg and Pabst. He instead shapes the production as distanced, exaggerated satire, a forerunner to Brecht's theater of alienation.

Corruption and vice are worn as flashily as Halloween masks; lines often feel framed in quotation marks and the pace is faster than a speeding bullet. There is even a Kurt Weill-like streetwalker song, sung by Lulu behind panels of paint-streaked glass, to bridge the scenes. And the look of the production, designed by Rob Howell, is an eye-poppingly lurid buffet of Expressionist and Secessionist images, with visual references to everyone from Klimt to Kokoschka.

For the evening's first half -- during which the irresistible Lulu, a former child prostitute, sees three successive husbands fall dead more or less at her feet -- this is all quite enjoyable as a sort of macabre boudoir farce about the ultimate material girl. The early scenes move so breathlessly that you don't worry too much about discrepancies or where you're being taken.

The redoubtable Alan Howard is entertainingly on hand as Dr. Schoning, Lulu's cynical Pygmalion (and later, her husband). Mr. Howard's remote, dyspeptic cynicism, accentuated by his sinister smoked spectacles, is in contrast to the relative innocence of Lulu's other victims.

These include her elderly, porcine first husband (Roger Swaine); the intense, unworldly young painter who is husband No. 2 (James Hillier); and Schoning's firebrand of a son (Oliver Milburn), who becomes the third Mr. Lulu. There is also the lesbian countess (Johanna ter Steege), who would (and does) die for love of Lulu, and Lulu's dirty sponge of a father (well played by Tom Georgeson), who makes Alfred P. Doolittle look like Ward Cleaver.

After the intermission, the vivid balance that Mr. Kent has maintained among these animated gargoyles starts to slip, as does his control of the evening's tone. The production has given fair warning that darkness lies ahead, by having Jack the Ripper (Peter Sullivan), Lulu's nemesis, hovering as a spectral observer in each scene. Jonathan Dove's music, performed by a live quartet, is woven with ominousness throughout.

But the big party scene in Paris that begins the show's second half feels unmoored, faux-decadent in the way modern-dress stagings of ''La Traviata'' tend to be. This version gives undue prominence to an aristocratic little girl, the daughter of a guest, who is drooled over by rich lechers and who witnesses Lulu's increasing desperation.

Presumably this is meant to confirm a theory suggested by Mr. Wright, who wrote the psychodrama ''Mrs. Klein,'' that Lulu was warped by early sexual abuse. But the image of the frozen, watching child is here as welcome and as natural as a Sunday sermon. It also seems facile to turn the final scene, in which Lulu is reduced to selling her flesh on the streets of London, into a contemporary vision of urban blight.

Ms. Friel, it must be admitted, brings an affecting mortal chill to the last chapter of Lulu's life, just as she brought a delectable air of self-adoration to the earlier scenes. She doesn't have anything like the untarnishable amorality of Louise Brooks, whom Pauline Kael compared to a ''beautiful, innocently deadly cat,'' in Pabst's movie.

This Lulu is more obviously a product of social forces, a sort of Lorelei Lee according to Karl Marx, and you can occasionally catch a gold digger's shrewdness on Ms. Friel's face. This demystifies and even cheapens Lulu, while making the men who fall for her seem even more foolish. But it's worth remembering that she is, after all, one man's dark fantasy of the feminine mystique.

Ms. Friel's Lulu may be too pedestrian to stick to the memory the way that Brooks's does, but it seems something like feminist justice to present this character without the poetic veils. Toward the play's end, Lulu overhears two men talking about how they don't understand women. ''I understand them,'' Lulu says. In the frayed bitterness in Ms. Friel's voice, you hear endless generations of weary, worn-out sex symbols.

LULU By Frank Wedekind; adapted by Nicholas Wright, from a translation by Wes Williams.
Directed by Jonathan Kent; sets by Rob Howell; lighting by Mark Henderson; music by Jonathan Dove; sound by John A. Leonard; fight direction by Terry King. The Almeida Theater Company and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts production. Presented by the Kennedy Center Celebrates the Arts of the United Kingdom. At the Eisenhower Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, James A. Johnson, chairman; Michael M. Kaiser, president.

WITH: Anna Friel (Lulu), Alan Howard (Dr. Schoning), James Hillier (Eduard Schwarz), Johanna ter Steege (Martha), Roger Swaine (Dr. Goll and Mr. Hopkins), Oliver Milburn (Alwa Schoning), Tom Georgeson (Schigolch), Peter Sullivan (Jack) and Anna Maguire or Francesca Murray-Fuentes (Kadega).

Ben Brantley

New York Times, 3.7.01.

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