A regular fave of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave festivals, Hamburg’s Thalia Theater company trains the unblinking eye of Neo-expressionism on Wedekind’s “Lulu” in a production that is surprisingly powerful for being so stylistically spare. Attribute the chilling overview of this modern classic (amazingly, begun in 1892) to wunderkind Michael Thalheimer, whose minimalist directorial approach is to streamline the story to its essentials: the fast-track rise and fall of a prostitute who became all things to all men and had to be destroyed.
Big, bare stage of the cavernous Harvey Theater — carved in mid-sweep by a huge, if underutilized, white screen — conveys the cool climate of a work aptly described as “a hellish amusement.” The chilly feeling of being in a laboratory facility prepped for dissection is further advanced by Stefan Bollinger’s stark lighting design and the trim, functional lines of Barbara Drosihn’s simple costumes.
In this antiseptic landscape, the story bones are stripped down to their bare skeleton — the better to show Wedekind’s prescient notion that decadent civilizations reveal their corruption in the way they treat women.
As played by the waiflike Fritzi Haberlandt, whose limbs keep falling into doll-like positions of passivity, the unformed Lulu is the eternal Woman who becomes the flesh of every man’s dream. The performance is a tour de force, stunning for its physical discipline and painful to read for its underlying messages.
Lulu has a lot of men to seduce, marry and lose before she lands in the gutter to be carved up by Jack the Ripper. And while she maintains her doll persona throughout her harrowing adventures, subtle adjustments made by Haberlandt in performance show Lulu as individual men envision her — as rag dolly, marionette, stuffed puppet, punching bag.
In Thalheimer’s minimalist playbook, the various men who take possession of Lulu are reduced to their primal urges for whatever she represents to them. Thalia thesps stamp them all with vivid individuality, from the paternal Dr. Goll (Christoph Bantzer), who collapses and dies of a broken heart when he discovers his beloved girl-child of a wife has betrayed him, to that nasty piece of goods Dr. Franz Schoening (Norman Hacker), who casts aside his loving Lulu to marry for money.
Even in this well-drilled company, Hans Low is outstanding as Eduard Schwarz, the oversexed artist who becomes obsessed with Lulu when her husband of the moment commissions him to paint her portrait. Comically eager to mount Lulu at the least provocation, Schwarz is forever dropping his pants — but never his essential humanity, thanks to Low’s funny, but always sympathetic perf.
Given the high level of this theatrical import, the poor quality of the supertitles — on both tech and aesthetic terms — is something of a jaw-dropper. Both overhead titles and side strips are well out of normal sightline of the stage action, and even when read, translations lurch past at their own uneven pace, barely conveying the gist of the German text.