nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
November 27, 2007
Even before the lights go completely down at the beginning of the Thalia Theatre's production of Lulu, the play's eponymous heroine, wearing a pink mini-dress and high heels, clumsily makes her way to the center of the stage, turns toward the audience and poses. Lulu is a thin woman, all straight lines and sharp angles; she holds her position for a long time, letting the nervous laughter turn into an alert silence. She keeps her arms at her side with her palms out and she holds this posture for a very long time. It's an open pose lacking vanity or grace, and she seems to be presenting herself to the audience as if she were welcoming scrutiny. "Here I am," the silence seems to be saying. "I'm what the play is about."
It's a deceptive moment though: If you look closely, Lulu is looking off to the side, impatience etched on her face, as if she's only doing her duty, waiting for the moment to end. The dichotomy of this image—the closed-off look atop an entirely open body—raises a number of questions: What is she waiting for? Why does she want it to end? What would she rather be doing? The moment lingers until the audience gets somewhat comfortable at which point Lulu looks at the audience, rolls her eyes, and walks away.
The scene last no longer than 45 seconds but it's a great moment because it doesn't allow the audience to settle in; by presenting itself in so blatant a manner, it demands the audience's attention. It also, subtly and with great cunning, establishes the tone for the next hour and 50 minutes. There are answers that will never be given and reasons that will never be explained. It defies your attempts to define it.
Lulu is divided into five acts. It begins in Germany with Lulu as a teenager posing for a painting commissioned by her husband surrounded by men discussing her boredom. It ends some years later in London where Lulu is working as a prostitute, supporting her dead husband's son and an animalistic father figure. Between these two points, Lulu deals with the death of three husbands (including one who kills himself in front of her and one who tries to convince her to kill herself in front of him), an enamored countess, numerous father figures, bribery, a contested last will and testament, a loaded gun, a very strange birthday celebration, four naked men, a penny-pinching Jack the Ripper, and a partridge in a pear tree. (Okay, I made up that last part.)
The playing of these events, and the characters' reactions to them, will greatly influence your enjoyment of the show. Lulu is a highly stylized affair. Set designer Olaf Altmann has stripped the stage of all elements save a large white scrim, which gradually moves toward the audience as the play progresses. Stefan Bolliger's clever side lighting throws the actors' elongated shadows onto this screen, sometimes duplicating, sometimes eliminating them altogether.
There is very little silence. The pacing is relentless. The actors speak their lines in German at such a quick pace that the supertitles projected above and on both sides of the stage can barely keep up with them. After 20 minutes, I realized they were not projecting a literal translation of the text but served as a general map of it to help the audience follow their actions. The words keep the audience on the road but only help so much because the style of acting is so extreme. The actors don't inhabit the characters as much as they inhabit the ideas the characters represent. The result is that they come across as somewhat two-dimensional. This makes the characters' intentions and humanity difficult to assess but it does allow the audience to take a step back and look at the world as a whole. And what does the larger picture reveal? Look no further than the heroine at its center.
Lulu is the match that ignites the play. As expertly embodied by Fritzi Haberlandt, everything she touches shoots like a rocket into the far reaches of the emotional stratosphere. In a profile of the show, Jonathan Kalb writes that the character of Lulu "is a projection surface, a screen for male fantasies." And to a certain extent this is true. She is a woman surrounded and influenced by the men in her life. The male characters treat her as either a sexualized or helpless being and she works hard to reinforce that role. But as time passes, we can see the conflict it creates in getting what she wants. What does she want? I'm not sure I've figured it out and the production doesn't go to any great lengths to provide an answer. She is no more capable of identifying her own needs than the men are capable of understanding theirs. Her attempts to find them thrust her out of her normal roles and leave the men in a state of chaos. Their inability to deal with this reduces them to a series of appetites and spawns some truly bizarre and hilarious behavior. It also leaves them grasping to retain shards of their own humanity.
To say that most of the characters fail does not give anything away. Michael Thalheimer's incisive direction of Frank Wedekind's script—the history of which deserves a play of its own—does an amazing job of scraping away the artifice to reveal everyone's raw, exposed centers. It hits at the fundamental something within human beings that clings to life in its most unbearable circumstances. And it deftly illustrates what our will to live is capable of removing—dignity, self-respect—in order to survive.