theater review

Theater Review: Peter Marks on WSC's 'Lulu'

She's a Lulu: Sara Barker plays the femme fatale in the Washington Shakespeare Company's production of the rarely staged play.
She's a Lulu: Sara Barker plays the femme fatale in the Washington Shakespeare Company's production of the rarely staged play. (C. Stanley Photography)
By Nelson Pressley
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How knocked out are onlookers gazing at the title character in Frank Wedekind's notorious "Lulu"? The line "She looks like a nude with clothes on" is uttered three times in the first moments by various drooling figures. Get ready for a case of punch-drunk lust.

But don't expect "Spring Awakening," the accessible rock musical about angsty teen romance lately fashioned from a Wedekind play. The seldom-staged "Lulu" is arch and ultimately extremely harsh, as Wedekind's oddly inscrutable femme fatale watches husbands and lovers die before she ultimately runs afoul of Jack the Ripper.

The Washington Shakespeare Company is working with the Nicholas Wright adaptation that London's Almeida Theatre used for its steamy, disquieting staging at the Kennedy Center in 2001, but they're not injecting it with anywhere near the same kind of heat. The show at the Clark Street Playhouse is more like a lab experiment with sex as an abstract idea, despite a good deal of tongue-tied love talk and writhe-on-the-floor antics by the cast.

Wright's dialogue, dripping with double entendres, encourages a certain amount of wink-nudge buffoonery, and director Christopher Henley plays some of it for camp value. Actors in heavy eye makeup are frequently on the hunt for comic shtick; see, for example, the lad in knee pants leaning forward and taking a flamboyant bite from an apple each time someone says the word "ripe." It's as cartoonish as the charcoal lines of the set's sketched-in walls and floor.

The eccentric "Lulu" lures productions toward that sort of flatness and excess, and Henley works the theme with suggestive silhouettes of Sara Barker (as Lulu) changing costumes between scenes. Suitors and audience members alike are invited to project their fantasies onto this depersonalized shadow, whose men typically choose a pet name to refer to her. (An artist calls her "Eve," suggesting the hyper-idealizing she's up against.)

The trouble is that the production's brittle mannerisms put a chill on a story that keeps declaring itself hot. The problem extends to Barker's take on the mysterious Lulu; Barker, who enters in lipstick the shade of dried blood, is always watchable, and her big eyes, dusky voice and quick wit suggest she'd be great blowing smoke rings at Sam Spade from under a 1940s hat.

Yet Barker and Henley seem intent on rendering this flippant, elusive Lulu as Wedekind's unsolvable enigma, which is tough to pull off without strong ideas about her milieu coming from somewhere in the production. (The Almeida show went in heavy for voyeurism, with excellent results.) This difficult drama bristles with troubling ideas, but the show isn't really provocative or dangerous until its horrific finish. By then it's too late.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Lulu

by Frank Wedekind, adapted by Nicholas Wright. Directed by Christopher Henley. Set designer, Eric Grims; lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Greg Stevens; sound, David Crandall. With Frank Britton, Tony Bullock, Zoe Cowan, Kim Curtis, S. Lewis Feemster, James Finley, Jay Hardee, Tricia Homer, Allan Jirikowic, Jack Miggins, Karin Rosnizeck, Julie Roundtree and Angel Torres. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Dec. 13 at the Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington. Call 800-494-8497 or visit http://www.washingtonshakespeare.org.


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