In the first scene of the second act of Torn Space Theatre’s confounding production of “Lulu” that opened Thursday night in the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle and Library, an elderly man in full leather gear steps onto the stage, raises his arms like Arturo Toscanini and conducts what might be described as a short sexual opera.
Our geriatric leather daddy, played with disconcerting vim and vigor by Jon Joy, manipulates the production’s three central male characters like marionettes by invisible wires. At his silent command, to a provocative song by the Canadian musician Peaches, they strip off their clothing and engage in various unprintable acts of sexual depravity and degradation. Finally, they surround a young woman at center stage and remove their last remaining pieces of clothing before the theater goes dark.
Many members of the audience, clutching their bottles of Polish beer and looking completely bewildered, had no idea whether to laugh or cringe. So they did both. Certainly few in the opening night crowd seemed to take the scene for what it was intended to be: a grotesque allegory for a sadistic patriarchy, in which men act not according to their own wills but the dictates of their sex.
This wayward and under-rehearsed production, directed by Megan Callahan, is an adaptation of German playwright Frank Wedekind’s two “Lulu” plays by Torn Space’s resident dramaturg Katie Mallinson. Its morally ambivalent title character, played here with alternating innocence and mercilessness by Sophia Howes, is both a paper doll ripped apart by the violent whims of bourgeois society and a living, breathing embodiment of the female libido as imagined by a male playwright.
With such a loaded character, refracted through the visions of countless theater directors since Wedekind dreamed her up in 1895, the interpretive possibilities are infinite. In this production, Mallinson and Callahan have opted to update the story with references to the out-of-control art market, the recent financial recession, the international sex trade and other nods to the commodification of culture and the female body.
The resulting production feels overburdened, more like a masters’ thesis with more ideas than it knows what to do with than a searing 21st-century take on a timeless 19th-century character. Just enough context has been removed to rob the play of its narrative thrust, but far too much unmoored dialogue remains to make it effective as a series of potent vignettes – a style for which this theater company is justly renowned.
In an effort to fit into the Torn Space aesthetic, Mallinson and Callahan have attacked the narrative in exactly the wrong spots. In the absence of a stronger story line to hold onto, we are left to consider the play scene by scene. And by this measure, it consistently fails.
One of the few exceptions is in a genuinely fine comic performance from Tighe and Howes in which Tighe’s character, a neurotic, coked-up ball of sexual frustration, pursues Lulu with all the skill and enthusiasm of a puppy. When she rebuffs him, he only tries harder, milking every laugh he can out of the scene until the play returns to its baseline vibe of awkward confusion.
The production redeems itself only in intermittent spots, especially because of compelling performances from Howes, Christopher Evans, Smith and Tighe. Another highlight is scenographer Kristina Siegel’s inspired set, consisting only of mattresses and venetian blinds. Siegel’s work here points up the way erotic concerns literally underlie the action and have assumed control of the characters’ lives and brains. In some ways, it also evokes the psychically loaded mattress-based artwork of Guillermo Kuitca. The addition of projections by Brian Milbrand seems extraneous rather than integral.
The set and performances aren’t enough to hold onto in this production, which suffers from a confused directorial vision. Either it should tell us a story or leave a striking impression. After a few workshops, Callahan’s show might get there. But in her current state, this “Lulu” is lost.