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Lulu at Victoria Theater

A Scion of Good, Old-Fashioned Decadence

I’ve been deeply into silent cinema of late -- for me, it represents a return to basics, an oasis of gesture and suggestion that’s needed in our current wasteland of self-parodying reality television and relentless, plotless blockbusters. Give me elegance, black and white glamour with no pretensions of a message other than the tawdriness of romance and the dark cult of personality. Give me sylph-like vamps with pencil-thin eyebrows and lips painted into blood-red pouts, and give me louche heroes and lotharios with a penchant for exaggerated bravado. Thankfully, Chicago-based Silent Theatre Company understands the appeal of classic celluloid, which they ape to sublime ends in their piece "Lulu", an adaptation of German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1894 Lulu cycle, comprising "Earth Spirit" and "Pandora’s Box", but bearing more of a resemblance to G.W. Pabst’s 1928 film revision starring über-vamp Louise Brooks.

While Wedekind’s original fin-de-siecle plays were a corrosive, timely indictment of bourgeois society, Silent Theatre -- without skirting completely ‘round the issue of class -- whisks us back to the pagan sepulcher of the feminine mystique. "Lulu", directed by Tonika Todorova, presents a dreamy, near-solipsistic exploration of the femme fatale, a character whose gender fluidity and nonchalant dealings with the men and women around her seem to signify feminine resourcefulness as much as they do feminine wiles.

Lulu, played by the inimitable Kyla Louise Webb (who even sports a jet-black Louise Brooks bob and a similarly pallid, indifferent beauty) is a lower-class woman who leaves behind broken hearts and corpses as she appropriates power from a string of infatuated lovers and shimmies up Berlin society’s rigid class ladder. On a less obvious note, while Lulu is almost completely constructed by her relationships with men, she is dangerous precisely because she mitigates class categories by enabling the possibility of an unconfined sexual expressivity that would bridge the lumpen-class and aristocracy. In fact, this is a play in which class is purposefully jumbled, chewed, and sputtered out; while the lines between the lower and upper classes are always drawn, Lulu commingles with pimps and bluebloods alike with ease, thus posing a direct hazard to the obviously vulnerable status quo.

The fact that this play is completely silent lends itself well to unnatural stylization. A perpetually flickering stage (imitating the transition between silent cinema’s picture and titles); succinct supertitles indicating setting, dialogue, and action; a monochromatic period wardrobe, as well as black and white pancake makeup that makes the ensemble look pleasingly garish; and a spare stage, with only an occasional lounging divan as a backdrop, all make the acting paramount. And paramount it proves to be, without the cinematic close-ups that determined both the excess and success of silent cinema, movement and gesture (even one as subtle as dropping a hankie) become perfectly choreographed tableaux that carry the story along.

"Lulu’s" satiric, grotesque preamble is immediately effective: a circus barker manically parades his cavalcade of freaks -- midgets, bearded ladies, monsters on stilts -- before the audience and then ushers in “the most untamed beast of them all”, the cool and remote eponymous character, who sweetly kisses the barker before breaking his neck. It’s a fantasy narrative that is never invoked in the actual play as anything more than an obvious metaphor -- that is, Lulu is the death of all the men who desire her.

The central drama revolves around Lulu’s amorous encounters with men. First she marries Dr. Goll (who eventually collapses from a heart attack after discovering his wife’s infidelity); then the painter Schwarz (who self-immolates when he learns that he too has been cuckolded); and eventually her long-time lover and mentor Dr. Schön (played by a transcendent, monocled Nicholas DuFloth) who, judging from his contemptuous stance, seems to be more aware of Lulu’s exploits than her other lovelorn, badgered conquests are, but who still melts like butter in her arms when she hands him her panties as a souvenir of her affection.

Lulu’s effects on men and women alike are ridiculously hyperbolic. Her admirers include Rodrigo Quast (played by a frenzied Curtis Jackson), a dancer whose prurient, spasmodic sexual energy (best exemplified in palazzo pants and mambo-infused hip swivels) offers a male analog to Lulu’s coy, pouty allure; and the more restrained Countess Geschewitsz (a graceful Lauren Ashley Fisher), Lulu’s costume designer, who sheds her reservations for extreme décolletage, passionate afternoon rendezvous, and upper class honor after Lulu casts come-hither looks her way.

True to silent film form, the scenes are episodic and practically divorced from each other, offering remarkable stand-alone vignettes. One of the best scenes in the play entails Lulu separately “entertaining” a passel of her lovers one idle afternoon while taking care that they never learn of each other’s presence. Another highly amusing spectacle entails a contrasting montage: as a rubber-faced butler (played by the wonderfully buffoonish Marvin Eduardo Quijada) courts a coquettish maid (the equally charming Gillian Hastings) on one side of the stage, Rodrigo and Lulu dance a frenetic tango on the other side. Given the disconnection and the lack of camaraderie between characters, a tragic demise is all too predictable.

But Lulu can’t be the only one blamed for narcissism and cruelty; Webb’s Lulu is as exploited as she is exploitative. Lulu is a complicated nexus of qualities, in fact; she vacillates between kittenish, all-eyes-on-me confidence to heavy dread as she wards off unwanted advances from other characters. Seeing Lulu navigate between her sexual sway over others and her powerlessness as an object under continuous male scrutiny makes her hunger for power and independence seem perfectly justifiable. Countess Geschewitz tearfully defends Lulu by exclaiming: “How do you think you’d turn out if you grew up in cafés and cabarets?”

The coda of the original "Lulu", which involves an encounter with a debonair Jack the Ripper, is kept intact and still points to female sexual deviance as the cause célèbre of a society’s moral corruption. Since the collective schadenfreude often punishes women who express sexual freedom or assume roles outside the purview of acceptable femininity, the denouement (which conflates sex, lesbianism, murder, and prostitution) isn’t as outmoded as it may seem on first glance. With the help of composer Isaiah Robinson, whose fluid, cabaret-esque ivory tickling provides a direct corollary to the onstage action (he even kibitzes actors with their cues by pounding his piano keys for effect), the shuddersome fate of Lulu is, thankfully, diminished by the play’s almost novel period appeal. "Lulu" is a dreamy, gothic piece that’s otherworldly in its idiom, but as obsolete as the silent film may be, Silent Theatre has produced a piece to rival any contemporary depiction of obsessive love and female sexuality, in all its glory and societal baggage.

Lulu runs until October 29th
at the Victoria Theatre
Thurs - Sat, 8pm; Sun, 7pm