Pulling the strings

Brown’s Lulu is a tragic farce
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  March 10, 2010

Bourgeois society has always been an easy target because it has always been such a broad one. Late 19th-century German playwright Frank Wedekind never grew tired of taking potshots, and while Lulu, being staged by Brown University Theater and Sock & Buskin (through March 14), may not aim with precision, it certainly keeps our attention with blunderbuss volley after volley.

There were several versions done in its time, and this 2001 adaptation by Nicholas Wright returns to the original Lulu as it castigates the consequences of a selfish and lust-centric society. Wedekind (most widely known for the recent rock musical adaptation of his 1891 play Spring Awakening) has us arrive in the middle of the action, not unlike turning a corner and encountering a knife fight. The essential facts of Lulu's back story accumulate while we are already involved in her plight.

Lulu (Hollis Mickey) is married to an old man, Dr. Goll (Ari Rodriguez), who is soon to keel over from mere proximity to a 25-year-old wife. He has provided her with two rooms full of costumes in which he has her dance before him half-naked, which is the extent of their sexual activity. "I don't know what I am," she declares at one point, in case such indications are not enough.

In the opening scene, she is being painted by an artist named Schwarz (Chris Tyler). Much is made of her beauty, with the artist observing in rapture as much as lust that "she's like a nude with clothes on." Soon a widow and a rich woman who no longer needs a protector, she does marry the poor, naïve artist, since that is what society requires for them to live together.

She doesn't, however, break off her relationship with a newspaper editor and a future husband, Dr. Schoning (Aubie Merrylees), a man with whom she has had an affair for 15 years. That's right, since age 10. Before long, he puts an end to their assignations, more because he feels sorry for her hapless husband than because he is going to get married. (Don't worry — his son Alwa [Gordon Sayre] eventually takes over his role.)

The most interesting character, as portrayed here, is her father Schigolch (Daniel Schiffrin), who has used her as an income source since she was 10 and an incestuous toy for many years before that. Schiffrin creates the most inventive characterization here, purely physically. He scuttles about like some seabed scavenger, sometimes tumbling over Lulu but never getting to his feet.

The stage interpretation of this pre-expressionistic play is as non-naturalistic as director Spencer Golub can devise. That is appropriate, since the dramatics range from tragedy to farce (Michael McCarty's stark set has five doors). While characters such as Lulu and the Countess, who are grounded in their emotions but are threatened with being pulled under by them, speak plainly and directly, characters who are controlled by their scheming and rationalizing, such as Dr. Schoning, usually speak in stylized manners that go along with the hypocritical society being criticized.

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