The synopsis describes one woman’s rise through the ranks of society, in which she is known to some as a temptress and to others as an innocent; it hints at a proverbial search for understanding. From this sound bite, the audience might anticipate a classy production a la Reese Witherspoon in “Vanity Fair” — sophisticated, sexy seductress seeks society’s approval on her own terms. But after an hour and 40 minutes of mixed orgies, circus performers and whipped cream, this production is far from cultured.
Instead, the audience is privy to an onslaught of human emotion and sexuality rarely seen on stage. The depiction is bold, but its shocking nature is so rough and unsettling that it confuses the actual substance of the drama.
Written by turn-of-the-century German playwright Frank Wedekind and translated by Carl Mueller, the controversial and convoluted “Lulu” was adapted for the Yale Repertory Theatre by Mark Lamos and Drew Lichtenberg. While the show itself is inevitably graphic and disturbing, this production does little to help the audience understand the questions lying beyond the shock value. It fails to provoke any profound thought, but its periodic soliloquies reveal an underlying theme or instance of social commentary, which, coupled with moments of near hilarity, save the otherwise apparently aimless play from itself.
The cast is undoubtedly talented — able to breathe new, albeit disturbing breath — into a foreign, 19th-century piece. Intentionally funny scenes succeed, and the acting is effective in portraying the world envisioned by this eccentric playwright.
“Lulu” tells the story of the title character (Brienin Bryant), who is taken under the wing of an influential patron of the arts, Dr. Ludwig Schon (John Bedford Lloyd). Under his tutelage, she learns to behave like a cultured young woman and is paired off in marriage first to an elderly benefactor, Dr. Goll (Joe Vincent), who loves to see her dance, and then to a young painter (Louis Cancelmi) who owes his fame to Schon. Throughout the play, her lines of intrigue are traced back to her relationship with Schon, whom she really wishes to marry.
In her pursuits, she causes the downfall of a countess, Schon’s son and others as each falls prey to her seemingly innocent seductions. Death and destruction lie in her wake, some of which she drives others to commit in her name and the rest of which she commits with her own hands. Lulu’s scheming manipulations and love affairs send her to Paris and the very nadir of society, and she ends her days in prostitution and poverty.
The story is intriguing and complex, but this production of “Lulu” relates it quite disjointedly, and the audience is often lost because the plot has become secondary to frequent bursts of raw sexuality. The production moves from love affair to murder to “rioting in the Reichstag” almost as quickly as Lulu transitions between “epic lusts.”
To its credit, the story successfully explores the complexity of the title character as her name changes with each lover. She is at once Nelly, Eve, Mignonne and Countess du Bois to a host of lovers; her true name remains known only to herself. This trend speaks to the theme of the misunderstanding of Lulu’s true identity as a woman, lover and human being.
The social commentaries strewn throughout the play reiterate this point. As one of Lulu’s scorned admirers, Countess Geschwitz (Felicity Jones) obsessively awaits her return. In a disillusioned tirade, she equates men and women to animals, claiming that understanding is the exclusive right of children. She speaks of men and women as concerned solely with eating, drinking and making love, and questions whether anyone ever derived happiness from love.
“Lulu” is a bizarre production that, by virtue of its strangeness, inverts traditional understandings of sexuality and customs. It is an exploration of social norms in relation to individuals who refuse to conform. This particular production is oddly riveting — the audience really cannot look away — and well-done, as the costumes and acting channel the feeling of an old cabaret or brothel. The show aims to provoke an instinctive response in its audience; some will enjoy it, while others will simply find it revolting.