‘Lulu’ Entices Audience

2005 Visiting Director’s Project delivers, thanks to strong performances by Lulu actresses and lovers

LULU
LOCATION: Loeb Drama Center Mainstage
DATES: October 21-29
DIRECTOR: Brendan Hughes
PRODUCERS: Rebecca L. Eshbaugh ’07 and Kristen D. Lozada ’07

Under the guidance of 2005 Visiting Director Brendan Hughes, the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) adaptation of the 1894 German sex drama “Lulu” is provocative without being sensational, profound without being excessively intellectual, and, despite its tragic ending, a definite artistic success.

Frank Wedekind’s “Lulu” is the story of an almost painfully innocent young girl, who is prone to corruption and seductive behavior that seems almost accidental. In fact, she makes childishly brash proclamations of her luxurious life but doesn’t seem to be aware of their sexually provocative insinuations. As such a dangerously tantalizing girl, Lulu entrenches herself in a downward spiral of intrigue, betrayal, and passion that always seems to leave her lovers dead.

It is her childlike innocence that entices men—but whether Lulu’s ingenuousness is authentic or invented is dubious. Throughout the play, viewers are drawn to question the truth and depth of Lulu’s innocence and whether her lovers really just care for the purity they have constructed for her. Actresses Julia C.W. Chan ’05, Rebecca J. Levy ’06, Catherine P. Walleck ’06, and Elizabeth A. McLeod ’08—who each play Lulu in her different stages of maturity—do a particularly good job of portraying this ambiguity of character. This multiple-actress-to-play-a-single-character ploy allows for a greater look at Lulu’s ambiguity, and audiences can never quite settle into a complete understanding of the character because portrayals of her vary so often.

In drifting from lover to lover, Lulu seems to lose certain markers of her individuality, experiencing a loss of identity that is amplified by the fact that she adopts whatever name her lovers call her. Whether she’s known as “Popsie” or “Katya,” Lulu is whatever her lovers want her to be; therefore, even if she is not a paragon of innocence, her lovers will choose to see Lulu that way. The standards they set for their perfectly virginal Lulu are impossible to meet, and thus, their relationships are ultimately doomed, as is seen by the end of the play.

However, such layered themes do not hinder Hughes and his cast in their creation of an entertaining production. Set in the sophisticated high societies of Berlin and Paris in the late 19th century, the first two acts are characterized by a wry wit. With a script chock-full of sophisticated double entendres and copious phallic symbols, these acts showcase a wonderfully funny Joshua Clay Phillips ’07 as he portrays the simple and perpetually astonished Schwarz (Lulu’s second husband).

Alan “Scooter” Zackeim ’06 as Doctor Goll and Mary E. Birnbaum ’07 as Lulu’s female admirer, Geschwitz, contributed memorable performances as Lulu’s lovers. As Alwa, playing another of Lulu’s lovers, Jess R. Burkle ’06 adds a more sophisticated but equally enjoyable comic dimension to the play with his keen sarcasm and biting wit. Alwa’s role soon grows more serious, however, along with the overall tone of the play. Lulu is implicated in the murder of one of her husbands. As she subsequently attempts to cover up her guilt with offers of sex, which she markets by exploiting her innocent appearance, Lulu’s core of true innocence begins to scratch away.

The lovers’ conceptions of the ideal Lulu are perhaps further hopeless because of the role that art plays in the drama. Lulu’s lovers are artists and tend to instinctively view Lulu as yet another work of art, both perfect and controllable. But Lulu is neither of these ideals—a point emphasized in this HRDC adaptation.

For instance, in one memorably rendered scene, Alwa at length observes a portrait of Lulu picturing his lady when she retained the purity she no longer pretends to in real life. This life-and-art contrast enhances the production’s drama, and the message resounds in a way that is particularly profound.

Such conflict between the artistic ideal and imperfect reality is the central conflict of the play; the “Lulu” script strives to convey the wretchedness of human lives lived in constant comparison and aspiration to unattainable artistic perfection. In one of the most successful campus dramas in recent memory, “Lulu” deftly achieves this goal, shifting what could have been a flippant, conventional story of one girl’s corruption and social downfall to a poignant and serious examination of the shortcomings of the human condition.

—Staff writer Mary A. Brazelton can be reached at mbrazelt@fas.harvard.edu.