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Review: Lulu bites into, then tears apart, a classic play about sex and death

Valerie Buhagiar, Rose Tuong, Christopher Morris and Craig Pike star in Lulu v. 7: Aspects of a Femme Fatale, onstage now at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times.

Jeremy Mimnagh

  • Title: Lulu v. 7: Aspects of a Femme Fatale
  • Co-created by: Susanna Fournier, Ted Witzel and Helen Yung
  • Written by: Susanna Fournier and Ted Witzel
  • Actors: Valerie Buhagiar, Sky Gilbert, Chala Hunter, Richard Lam, Christopher Morris, Craig Pike, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah and Rose Tuong
  • Company: Buddies in Bad Times and Red Light District
  • Venue: Buddies in Bad Times
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to May 20, 2018

rating

Ontario used to be obsessed with the idea of “classical theatres” – with the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival and Soulpepper all billing themselves as such at different points in time.

But having problematic plays written by dead, white, mostly heterosexual European men form the backbone of a theatre company seems to be losing its cultural currency in 21st century Canada – and we’ve seen Shaw and Soulpepper, in particular, shy away from the term and the texts in recent years.

So, it’s fascinating to see Buddies in Bad Times, Toronto’s long-running queer theatre, and the indie company Red Light District pick up the slack on the classics front this spring by grappling with a pair of tricky fin-de-siècle tragedies by German playwright Frank Wedekind.

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Lulu v. 7: Aspects of a Femme Fatale, a mad but meaty, three-hour affair co-created by Susanna Fournier and Ted Witzel with the scenographer Helen Yung, first stages and then pulls apart Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, which had their first productions back in 1895 and 1904, respectively.

The creators succinctly describe these early expressionistic tragedies by Wedekind –which inspired Alban Berg’s great opera Lulu, as well as, more recently, an album by Lou Reed and Metallica – as being about a woman who “[sleeps] her way across Europe and through a series of lovers who all wind up dead, until she meets her end at the hands of Jack the Ripper.”

Framed by excerpts (purporting to be?) from the playwright’s journal when he was a young man searching for artistic and sexual experiences abroad in Paris, the first act features a strong eight-person ensemble performing a condensed adaptation of the plays themselves – albeit in a deconstructed way with plenty of live video, nudity and musical accompaniment created by distorting and looping the actors’ voices.

We meet Lulu (Rose Tuong) living under a variety of names, with a variety of men: Dr. Goll (Valerie Buhagiar), a rich man who calls her Nellie and wants to own her; Schwarz (Chala Hunter), a painter who calls her Eve and wants to be inspired by her; and Schön (the brilliant Christopher Morris), a newspaper owner who calls her Mignon and wants to control her.

There’s also the publisher’s writer son Alwa (Craig Pike), a stand-in for Wedekind himself; the Countess Geschwitz (a very funny Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah), a lesbian who Wedekind at one point argued was the true heroine of the plays; and Schigolch (a deliciously slimy Sky Gilbert), the petty criminal who gave Lulu her name and raised her.

Who is Lulu to Lulu, though? Tuong gives us a protean performance with hints of possibilities – but it seems the woman really does not exist beyond the gaze of the men and one woman who look upon her. And, of course, all those men, and the countess too, are actually projections of the playwright.

In his Lulu plays, Wedekind turns a woman – apparently, based on a lover of his – around in his head, over and over, looking at her from different angles, but never really seeing her. And then he kills her.

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It’s hard to think of a male impulse more important to tear open and examine at this moment – and, indeed, Fournier, Witzel and Yung give Lulu a crowbar at the end of the first act to do just that.

She wrenches apart the stage and, after intermission, a collage of texts by Witzel and Fournier that reflect on sex and death is performed by the cast on pieces of it scattered around the sprawling Buddies black box.

Toronto has had to consider sex and death and their intersection in traumatic ways in recent months. Did a man really murder 10 people last month in North York because he identified as an “involuntary celibate?” How long was another man murdering gay men with impunity here?

Wedekind was writing at a time when urbanization led to new freedoms and perils – and Lulu provides a space to look at both the beautiful and cruel sides of those from a safe distance. A standout monologue, performed poignantly by Richard Lam, considers the #MeToo movement and the alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur from the perspective of a gay man who doesn’t want to stop being touched by men in bars and arranging hookups online.

If the first act is a bit cluttered and even incoherent at times, the second act is meditative and sometimes quite moving. Lulu v. 7 is the culmination of a five-year journey for Witzel, Fournier and Yung, who rather than going to Paris as Wedekind did as a young artist, spent time in Berlin, soaking up approaches to art and sex there. This final presentation reflects that – wait for the leaf-blower to show up – and it’s a provocative, in the positive sense, call and response with an old, dead, white guy that shows how an old play can still be the basis for a useful and artful night at a contemporary theatre, which all theatres ultimately are.

Lulu v. 7 runs until May 20.

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