THE LULU SEX TRAGEDIES
at Avenue Theatre
At the turn of the century, when they were first produced, German playwright Frank Wedekind’s Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, about the rise and fall of the seductive, amoral, constantly manipulative Lulu, were quite notorious. In fact Pandora’s Box was considered so immoral that the first published edition of the play was confiscated and all future productions forbidden. First written as one long play, Pandora’s Box, a Monster Tragedy was divided in two at the suggestion of publisher Albert Langen, who feared the authorities would balk at Lulu’s bloody encounter with Jack the Ripper in the second half. Langen then published only the safer first play, Earth Spirit, which recounts Lulu’s rise in society through the increasingly sophisticated manipulation of her lover Dr. Schon.
Wedekind’s works have not aged well, however. The eternally seductive sexual vampire has become something of a cultural stereotype in the hundred years since Wedekind created Lulu. Works as dissimilar as Metropolis, The Lady Eve, and And God Created Woman contain at their centers women like Lulu who inevitably, consciously or unconsciously, destroy (or try to destroy) the men they so easily seduce. Furthermore, the central conflict in Earth Spirit–whether the upper-crust Dr. Schon will risk his social standing to marry Lulu–has no currency with a contemporary American audience used to believing that class divisions, if they exist at all, are arbitrary and fragile, easily crossed by anyone with enough pluck and perseverance.
Given the right cast and the right direction, of course, such handicaps can be overcome. But those are not givens in Prop Theatre’s mess of a production, which on opening night displayed all the symptoms of a work unready for its run–flawed performances, unfocused direction, pointless scenes that cried out to be cut.
Adapter and director Chris Pretorius is not the first to try to reunite what Wedekind tore asunder. In the late 60s British playwright Peter Barnes (The Ruling Class, Red Noses) edited the two Lulu plays together in an adaptation first performed at the Royal Court Theatre. More recently another Brit, Steve Gooch, repeated Barnes’s trick for London’s Red Shift Theatre Company, which premiered a two-hour version, Gooch’s The Lulu Plays, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1990. Both Barnes and Gooch cut the plays to the bare minimum–unedited, they’d run about five hours–a strategy Pretorius only partially follows: this production lasts almost three hours.
The first half of The Lulu Sex Tragedies unfolds in (sadly fleeting) moments of true grace and power; more important, the story hangs together coherently here. The second act, however, which traces Lulu’s fall from grace, is so confusing and fragmentary that unless you know the plot of Pandora’s Box beforehand you’ll never glean it from the production. Why does the story jump from Berlin to Paris to London, for instance, and how could Lulu’s fortunes have fallen so low that she must resort to prostitution to make a living?
But it would be misleading to blame all the flaws of this production on Pretorius’s adaptation, for the show brims with awful performances. Brian Shaw (who was warm, charming, and even-keyed as Figaro in Pretorius’s last project, I, Figaro) makes Dr. Schon into such a one-note status-conscious hysteric–no matter what happens, his fear is that he’ll lose his social standing–that it’s a relief when Lulu “accidentally” shoots him at the end of the first act. Worse yet is Jonathan P. Lavan, whose broad, vulgar portrayal of Dr. Schon’s son Alwa is so annoyingly obvious and cartoonish that not a nanosecond of his performance seems honest or convincing. In fact, this production is full of men delivering god-awful performances. The only male part that’s done well is played by a woman, Sarah Bradley.
Which is a shame, because Jill Daly is an interesting, sexy choice as Lulu–the ease with which she handles both the sensual and intellectual sides of Lulu’s character made me wish she’d had at least one capable male actor to play against. As it is, watching Daly seduce this or that man is like watching Brigitte Bardot put the moves on a folding chair. You know she’ll have her way with it, but where’s the challenge?
For my money, however, Patti Hannon, in black baggy pants and a faded too-tight swallow-tailed tuxedo jacket, delivers the best performance in the play as Schigolch, the penniless but highly mobile hobo/stage manager/symbol of death who appears whenever the play seems in danger of becoming merely naturalistic. Even when the action moves to Paris, and then to London, Schigolch is there. Hannon plays her role with such warmth, intelligence, and commitment you don’t care that her appearances often defy rational explanation.
But in a production that runs amok as often as this one does, every beat in the story seems to defy rational explanation.
Significantly more successful is Genesis Productions’ auspicious entrance on the non-Equity scene, Home Free! This charming one-act by Lanford Wilson, first performed in 1964, concerns a pair of mentally ill siblings who live together in a small, cluttered apartment. The genius of the piece lies in Wilson’s ability to take story elements others might twist into melodramatic soap opera–the brother and sister see, hear, and speak to imaginary people, and Joanna is pregnant with Lawrence’s child–and fashion them instead into sympathetic but utterly unsentimental portraits.
Director Roger Dale shows considerable sensitivity to the material, which could easily have seemed a TV movie-of-the-week gone bad. Dale’s direction of his two pitch-perfect young actors, Holly Cardone and Gabriel Paul, is simple, understated, and well crafted. It helps that Cardone and Paul are completely convincing as brother and sister: they play together with the joy and ease of two real siblings palling around on a Saturday afternoon. And neither one overplays the schizophrenia–they speak to their imaginary friends with the same conviction they show in speaking to each other. Nor do they use their characters’ incestuous relationship as an excuse to introduce tawdry stuff. Even when the script calls for them to roll around on the couch, they do so like a couple of kids only partly aware of their sexuality.