Virgin or vamp

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Last week at the BAM Harvey Theater, the eponymous heroine of “Lulu” quietly flitted onto the stage, leaving me, I must confess, with raised gooseflesh on my neck.

It is Michael Thalheimer (remember Next Wave’s 2005 staging of “Emilia Galotti”?), the renowned director of The Thalia Theater, who has finessed this shocking production of Frank Wedekind’s classic tragedy. Spurred perhaps by the recent success of the Broadway musical “Spring Awakening” (also based on Wedekind’s work), this radically new production is a must-see. True, there are more conventional shows in town that can deliver a cathartic experience. But, I daresay, next to “Lulu,” they all seem about as exciting as crochet-work.

The play, as you should know, is dominated by a wispy waif named Lulu — who says she is not a prostitute, while the audience is left to notice that she behaves precisely like one. There is perpetual sexual rivalry over her, as she careens from man to man. But her charm goes untarnished — even after murdering or destroying four husbands — within a stretch of five years.

Historically, critics have dichotomously described Lulu as virgin and vamp, child and seductress, femme fatale and New Woman, or as the Dark Lady of any poet’s imagination. In short, one can only begin to comprehend her nature by accepting that she is, like Eve, both bleak and beautiful.

It may be worth adding that the playwright perceived his central character to be Countess Geschwitz, who gained the distinction of being the first obvious lesbian on stage. Admittedly, the Countess is a compelling figure in the story, in (romantically) befriending Lulu and foreseeing the need for women’s rights in a male-dominated society. In my view, however, she shrinks next to the pure passion of our heroine. The Countess might have the guts of 10 men, but Lulu is pure animus and like a force of nature.

Now that — whew! — I’ve discharged with my first obligations, allow me to rave incontinently about Fritzi Haberlandt as Lulu. The blonde actor is not more than five-feet, two-and-a-half-inches tall. But she raised her stature on stage by wearing heels that looked about six-inches high. To be sure, the psychological and physical demands for this role are daunting, but she doesn’t disappoint. Part rag doll, part schoolgirl gymnast, part flirty dancer, Lulu is all grand coquette. There is no melodrama in her exercise of sexual power, and she doesn’t force, either. Her Lulu lives for the moment, where present love hath present laughter. And what’s to come is not only unknown but irrelevant.

The performance is in German, and to compensate for the “linguistic wall,” the theater projected English titles for the audience. Curiously, I found that the actors’ natural cadences gave the show more authenticity and verve. And the real language of humanity comes across due to the consummate artistry of the creative team.

There is plenty of technical polish in the production as well, starting with Alexander du Prel’s neat, no-nonsense video design and Stefan Bolliger’s lucidly methodical lighting. The set design by Olaf Altmann is correctly self-effacing, and opens up the stage space for the very physical acting and exaggerated body gestures of the actors. Under the aegis of Thalheimer, the moral coolness of Wedekind’s work is sustained, and he pares down the multi-faceted narrative to its core. [“Lulu,” intended as one work, was published in two parts: “Earth Spirit” (1895) and “Pandora’s Box” (1902).]

The trouble with the show, if any, is with adapting oneself to such a dazzling manifestation of the avant-garde. It’s like your first shot of schnapps. Quite invigorating.

What images do I retain? No doubt the scene with Lulu’s death at the hands of the sexual maniac, Jack the Ripper (Michael Benthin). This radical denouement is downright unnerving, but the power of the scene is that it keeps a steady, almost understated, tone throughout the tragic finale.

Wedekind’s “Lulu” is one of the most shocking tragedies in the German language, and will be so again this weekend. Thalheimer’s adaptation is top-notch, and with the superb Haberlandt playing Lulu, one can freshly see the light and shadowy aspects of the character marbleizing into a rich chiaroscuro portrait.

I recommend this show, not for one and all, but definitely for the most adventuresome and mature. Nudity, sex and violence permeate almost every scene, and might leave some stomachs queasy. But for those playgoers of the world who think they are above watching a prostitute on her tragic journey to death, this show should be compulsory.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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