Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven
“Lulu,” Mark Lamos’s daring production at Yale Rep, had already created a stir even before its opening. Its ad promoting the show was rejected by both The New York Times and the New Haven Register. The ad did not meet their advertising standards, the papers claimed. Portrayal of a woman’s naked torso, with merely an apple covering vital areas, was not for family newspapers.
Thus this “Lulu” was off to a notorious start, well in keeping with its past history. “Lulu” has long been considered controversial—from its very beginnings at the turn of the 20th century. German playwright Frank Wedekind was well ahead of his time, with works that would later influence the German Expressionist movement, as well as the plays of Brecht and others. Not only did he tackle such verboten subjects as sex and violence and a gritty underworld, but he created a new experimental style. It would take time for his substance and his style to be accepted—in fact, well into the pre-Nazi era of the 20s. Several Wedekind plays would later be combined—as opera, film, and theater—to become “Lulu.”
Lamos’s lavishly staged piece evokes that era. It is “Cabaret” or “Threepenny Opera” carried several steps further. Lamos is faithful to Wedekind’s use of vaudeville, burlesque, and circus material. For example, a grinning, masked Animal Trainer (a Joel Grey-type character) serves as Narrator and Ringmaster, bringing us into territory made so familiar by “Cabaret.”
Who is this Lulu? What is she about? We are given a girl who is all pout, flirt, and innocence, a façade which actress Brienin Bryant plays well enough. But beneath the surface lurks a creature given to ravenous sexual appetites and self-indulgences, with feeling for no one but herself. As Wedekind sees his heroine, Lulu is a monster. Bryant is hard put to meet that challenge. Is this pint-sized charmer really a femme fatale who drives men to madness? Difficult to believe.
But otherwise the visually stunning production is all one wishes. Lamos has whipped up an array of marvelous characters against a striking background. Lovers and would-be lovers, gay and straight, cavort wildly, half naked or in glittery attire. It is a veritable three-ring circus. The circus elements are, in fact, never out of sight, with a Ringmaster who cracks the whip and gleefully tells the tale. Lamos does not hesitate to use nudity and explicit sexual activity to tell that tale, contributing considerably to its shock effect. And his design team enlarges the tale in every respect. Rumiko Ishii’s elaborate two-tiered set works beautifully as characters race across the balcony or navigate the wrought iron circular staircase. Burke Brown’s lighting and the sound design of David Thomas also enhance the sense of shock, as do the brilliant costumes of Christina Bullard.
Once more, “Lulu” lives up to her name and her reputation.
-- Irene Backalenick
Apr. 6, 2007