Franz Wedekind’s sexually magnetic, casually destructive creation Lulu is less well known for the two turn-of-the-century plays in which she originated than her subsequent multimedia incarnations, most notably Alban Berg’s opera and G.W. Pabst’s 1928 silent film classic with Louise Brooks. She gets another idiosyncratic outing in the form of “Lulu,” a “black-and-white silent play” from Chicago’s youthful Silent Theater Company. While it skims merrily over the darker sides of Wedekind’s vision, this pantomime is diverting enough to have turned into a surprise long-running hit in its tour stop at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater.
That quaintly antique venue, built in 1908 as a vaudeville house, is a perfect setting for this bare-bones interp, although the show would be sharper with a less limited lighting setup than it currently suffers.
Formed by theater students at Chi’s Columbia College, Silent Theater Company looks to have an interesting creative mission — though “Lulu” appears its only production to date. (Tonika Todorova has directed her adaptation four times so far, this being the latest version.)
Though crediting the original plays as inspiration, it hews close to the movie, complete with Brooks-style black flapper bob and frisky manner for Kyla Louise Webb’s title figure. Lulu is a barely legal Berlin sprite who, in alternating waves of hunger, thoughtlessness and spite, brings out the lusting beast in everyone — male and female, old and young, including her biological father (Alzan Pelesic), the wealthy benefactor who raised her (Nicholas DuFloth) and the latter’s wet-behind-ears son (Matthew Massaro).
Heedless to anything but her own quicksilver desires and furiously resistant to discipline, Lulu isn’t necessarily “bad,” but she invariably sets her partners on a one-way road to ruin. They include three husbands, a dance partner during her brief theatrical career (Curtis W. Jackson) and haplessly smitten lesbian amour Countess Geschwitz (Lauren Ashley Fisher).
When Lulu’s own fortunes hit rock-bottom, she’s finally put out of her misery by no less than Jack the Ripper (chrome-domed, imposing DuFloth again, in grotesque Caligari-style makeup).
This episodic progress never stops moving in Todovora’s production, which bestows equal physicality on its heroine’s sexual adventures and on slapstick sequences that sometimes threaten to overwhelm a fairly serious (if lurid) story.
The 11 cast members run a usefully broad gamut in terms of look and size, enabling some near-acrobatic business, but they’re variably suited to the period and desired tone (somewhere between commedia, silent-film melodramatics and Grand Guignol). Jackson and the lovely if surface-treading Webb sport evident dance training to their advantage; Marvin Eduardo Quijada is the talent here most naturally gifted in physical comedy.
With no set to speak of beyond a couple occasional furniture pieces, the show is “dressed” solely by Tzvetana Dontcheva’s excellent vintage costuming. The strictly B&W design scheme encompasses white pancake makeup and black lipstick. Supertitles above the stage convey Wedekind’s dialogue, perhaps more often than necessary. Isaiah Robinson created and plays live the nonstop piano score, mixing original themes with aptly chosen standards.