Hot and throbbing rock music, pulsating with hormones and teenage angst, helped Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” heat up the Rialto this season. But Yale Rep’s production has not found its way into another problematic, sexually charged work by the 19th century German playwright. Those looking for a second round of Wedekind rediscovery via “Lulu” will be disappointed in a production that fails to seduce.
How do you solve a problem like “Lulu,” an expressionist exploration of man’s insatiable desires? How does a production keep a cool distance as it turns up the libidinous flame? Give the heroine too much — or even any — humanity and you take away the symbolic points. But make it abstract or clumsily absurd and it can become an indulgent and tedious exercise — which is the fate of the Rep production.
Helmer Mark Lamos’ adaptation (with dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg) of the turn-of-last-century play embraces the work’s stylized exuberance, including the playwright’s use of strained symbolism and grotesque caricatures. But it’s a wild mess of a production that surprisingly lacks sex or even fun despite its carnal embrace of nudity, fetishism and masturbation. The staging is made all the more disjointed by Rumiko Ishii’s garish hodgepodge of a set and Sean Curran’s erratic choreography.
The approach here is to treat the work as a piece of circus revelry, complete with an animal trainer/ring master (Michael Braun) who opens the show and reappears between scenes as he reigns over a lineup of men behaving like beasts.
But what and who is untamed Lulu (Brienin Bryant)? Who knows — and that’s the point as the men see this hothouse flower as the object of their own primal desires, the reflection of their own egos and ids, the ultimate power prize. Lulu is a sensual flame who leads these bourgeois men to their doom. But as for the woman herself, she’s as elusive as a spirit sleepwalking through a fevered dream.
All of which makes her a challenge to perform. Bryant plays the narcissistic, oblivious Lulu with an engaging yet blank charm, her wide eyes only vaguely aware of her power over men. While not quite mesmerizing, Bryant gives the character a likable friskiness that only loses its bounce when she confronts her true fears as she descends from society’s salons to the gutter.
As for the rest of the cast, most play with cartoon broadness but without humor, purpose or effect. Actors playing the darkest characters do best: Jordan Charney as Lulu’s lecherous father and Louis Cancelmi as her final, fatal man. Other perfs are either over the top (John Bedford Lloyd as Lulu’s keeper, Felicity Jones as her lesbian admirer) or just confused (Charles Socarides as the son of Lulu’s benefactor, Jesse J. Perez as an acrobat.)
But the production never finds its anti-naturalistic center as it reels from the theater of the ridiculous to penny dreadfuls, looking for a theatrical template to express Wedekind’s cynical rant against bourgeois society. (There’s even a nod to the silent film “Pandora’s Box,” which memorably starred Louise Brooks and was based in part on Wedekind’s plays.)