Wedekind’s “Lulu” adapted by Nicholas Wright at VA’s Clark Street Playhouse; Or, 15 Actors in Search of an Audience (Review)

Wedekind’s “Lulu” adapted by Nicholas Wright at VA’s Clark St. Playhouse; Or, 15 Actors in Search of an Audience;

Or Help, I’m Hung-up on 18th c. Titles Lately (Review)

There’s been discussion lately about the impact reviews have on playgoers, theatre practitioners, etc., but what about the impact of an audience?  Now, I’m not talking about sales or even demographic, though both are obviously important; no, I’m talking about the “role” of  the audience during a performance.

On Sunday I saw a Washington Shakespeare Company production of Nicholas Wright’s Lulu adaptation, commisioned and first produced by the Almeida Theatre, London in 2001.  I attended the 2pm show, and  while I realize matinee attendance can tend to be lower than evening, I was still surprised by the nearly empty space I walked into. WSC’s venue, Clark Street Playhouse, has seats for 100, but only 9 were filled, and I was in one of them.  I felt so alone, so exposed. Who would throw fruit with me, boo and hiss with me? Had I walked onto the set of a Charlie Kaufman film?

I was experiencing something less often discussed: audience fright.

I found myself wondering who the other audience members were, something I’d be much less inclined to do in a packed theatre.  Were they diehard modern drama fans, out-of-towners, bodysnatchers, friends and family of the cast and crew?

As individuals who comprise the single mass referred to as the audience, we sometimes take cues about how to react throughout a performance from one another…when to clap, when to be quiet, and, most notably, when to laugh.  However, the cliche about laughter being contagious doesn’t seem to hold true when there aren’t enough people to spread the response, or when one person in a small crowd is consistently the only soul laughing.  Then, we become skeptical and convince ourselves that this person has some tie to the production.

This experience also made me feel bad for the cast.  Playing before a shrunken audience feels a bit like a rehearsal, only worse, because you know it’s not.  The show can go on with a small audience, even without one at all,  but the show is just not the same.  Even the most naturalistic of plays in performance hinge on a kind of reciprocity, rapport, (even if the tone is negative, disapproving) between actors and audience.

What’s more, a slimly attended show is often not a reflection of the show’s merit or audience-worthiness; all sorts of other factors play a part, from economics to weather to (lack of) publicity.  This production deserved an audience.

In the past few decades, numerous playwrights have offered up adaptations of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu.  The enticement to adapt this work lies largely with the fact that it exists in different versions: the single play Wedekind initially conceived, which was found to be too unsavory to stage at the turn of the century, and the modified two play version, expurgated, in a sense, by Wedekind himself, known as The Lulu Plays (Earth Spirit, 1895 and Pandora’s Box, 1904). Wright investigated Wedekind’s original intentions with the work in order to create an adaptation that restored its authenticity.

Lulu’s story is a tale of rags to riches to rags. “A breadwinner since she was ten years old,” her father informs us (with the perverse implication of incest), she improves her status in the world by sleeping with and marrying a string of wealthy men, rejecting only one high rank suitor, the lesbian Countess Geschwitz.  Ultimately, she flees Paris to avoid murder charges and ends up a dejected and destitute London prostitute, murdered by Jack the Ripper, an intense ending made even more dramatic in this production because James Finley’s Ripper is not just blood-covered but fully naked.

The play opens in Berlin in the studio of Eduard Schwartz, the gauche artist hired by Lulu’s first husband, Dr. Goll, to paint her portrait.  The action is set in motion when Dr. Goll leaves Lulu alone with the artist, only to return unannounced and find them nearly fornicating on the floor. A literally apoplectic Dr. Goll dies at the sight of this and then, in a stage gesture typical of Wedekind and his contemporaries, Brecht, Pirandello, etc, takes a seat on a sofa placed just in front of the actual audience, where he will be joined in succession by Lulu’s other dead husbands and lovers over the course of the performance.

In this production, the characters’ sense of self-awareness and theatricality is echoed by Eric Grims’ impressionistic set and Greg Stevens’ playful black and white costumes, which transport us to a twisted turn of the century art deco fun house brimming with campy, scantily clad denizens. Fittingly, as Lulu, Sara Barker changes costumes upstage behind a silk screen shadow play that reveals her nude silhouette.  It is also from this removed but visible vantage point that we witness Lulu’s second husband, the portrait artist, slit his own throat.  David Crandall’s sound effects, such as the boxing ring bell that chimes each time one of Lulu’s lovers enters, infuses comedy into this largely grim play.  Add to this the retro-inspired remixes of pop songs such as “Let’s Talk about Sex” and “Oops, I Did it Again,” and you have a staging of Wedekind with many markings of Baz Luhrman’s film Moulin Rouge starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.

Like other literary works, such as Therese Raquin and The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which paintings figure centrally, portraits of Wedekind’s eponymous femme fatale loom throughout the play.  In this production, however, the focus is on the heroine herself, not her portrait or her interaction with it. (Other adaptations, such as Alban Berg’s opera, have placed greater weight on the interplay between Lulu ad her portrait.) Aside from the opening scene, the portraits are only emphasized one other time, and this is when Lulu’s father and  her third husband, Alwa, pore over one they’ve salvaged in their move from the heights of Paris to the depths of London.  What the audience sees at this moment is merely a blank canvas, meant to symbolize Lulu’s malleability, a point summed up in the lines by Lulu that appear on the program cover: “This is me. I’ve never pretended to be anything else.  All the rest is just your imagination.”

WSC’s Clark Street Playhouse production of Lulu runs until December 13th. For tickets visit washingtonshakespeare.org or call (703)418-4808.

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