Lulu, a sex tragedy
15 Head: a theatre lab
Conference of Birds
Pangea World Theater
HERE SHE COMES. You'd better watch your step. She's going to break your heart in two. It's true. It's not hard to realize. Just look into her false colored eyes. She'll pick you up just to put you down. What a clown. 'Cause everybody knows--she's a femme fatale.
Though that song was composed for the Velvet Underground's Teutonic anti-diva, Nico, it could also easily serve as the theme song for the titular seductress of Frank Wedekind's 1894 Lulu, a sex tragedy. As adapted by 15 Head: a theatre lab in their maiden production, Lulu is all gleeful kink. The play begins with the tawdry bounce of a Brechtian barrel organ and the rhythm of a take-it-all-off snare, as a spotlight offers snap exposures of the cast in compromising positions. Enter Lulu in thigh-high black booty-boots and a dress as tight as sausage casing. While a painter massages her body with a three-foot brush, Lulu's physician husband goes coronary on the floor. He is the first in a series of self-made sex victims, propelled from a reckless pursuit of the little death to the big one. Lulu worries aloud that she may be a freak; "superfreak" is more like it.
Interestingly, the portrait of Lulu that results from her sitting/laying session is an empty frame, a blank canvas. For though Lulu will consent to anything, men's attempts to animate her character result in self-portraiture (another Nico vocal describes the phenomenon: "I'll be your mirror/Reflect who you are"). And so to the painter, she is a chaste Venus; to her patrician benefactor, an exquisite form of torture. Lulu's suitors are not controlled by her sexuality, but by their own desire to control it.
As playwright Wedekind sampled from a smorgasbord of theatrical styles--the program lists "expressionism, melodrama, acrobatics, cabaret, slapstick comedy, and Grand Guignol horror"--the 15 Head company and director Greg Smucker present their own feast of images. Lulu's blocking is a breathless rush from line to line and scene to scene. Actors zip down a PVC firepole. Bloody body puppets fly from platforms and land upstage. Actors chant Big Ben chimes in a dissonant chorus and provide their own Popeye sound effects. During the scene changes, the cast performs a Cole Porter medley. For those of us who often consider theatrical naturalism a bitter, narcoticizing pill, 15 Head's tireless will to entertain is laudable; boredom is not an option here.
Though one cannot praise Smucker's visual aesthetic enough, I find his interpretation of Wedekind's themes vaguely disingenuous. "Lulu is the most innocent character in the play," Smucker writes. "The play then is about what happens... when her freedom is not permitted to exist in a sexually repressive society and she is taught to view herself the way she is viewed by those around her." A more modern equivalent of this tale is the horror movie where teenagers engaged in a backseat boogie unwittingly evoke a monstrous projection of the id; the cavalry must then be called in to suppress this unleashed power. Carried to its psychoanalytic extreme, the girl who has endangered society by threatening to fill what Wedekind calls her "murder hole," must be devoured herself.
For a contemporary audience, I suspect that Lulu resonates more deeply as a macabre queer fairy tale. The diva-esque Lulu has "unnatural" sexual appetites and powers. Her partners can neither resist nor accept their disreputable passion (or as Joan Jett, another great chanteuse, would have it: "I hate myself for loving you"). But though the putative point of Lulu is to inveigh against a sexual politics of guilt and sin, the better part of this production is cheerfully devoted to debauchery and titillation. Whether het or homo, I ultimately find this kind of binging and purging fairly reactionary stuff. Like the monster movie, its words say no, but its body says yes yes yes.
In a city where new theater companies proliferate like bacteria, 15 Head dispels many of one's pessimistic preconceptions: Their cast is huge and abundantly talented; their costumes are lavish; their production values are slick; their donor list is long. The same might be said for The Pangea World Theater, who debut with Conference of the Birds, an adaptation of a 13th-century poem about the Sufi path to divinity. Farid Ud-Din Attar's engaging tale is a welcome change from the shopworn gringo canon, although appreciating its abstract, allegorical approach can seem something of a chore ("How can the moth flee the flame if it desires to be one with it?"). Yet with a detailed three-year schedule that includes a presentation from actor Olympia Dukakis and a playwriting workshop with South African Athol Fugard, director Dipankar Mukherjee's artistically challenging and ethnically expansive conception for this new company shows real promise. CP
Lulu, a sex tragedy runs through October 26 at Old Arizona Studios; call 688-3815. A Conference of Birds runs at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune through October 13; call 333-6200.
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