Though Frank Wedekind’s name may not be as well-known as Bertolt Brecht’s, the German playwright is making a comeback nearly a hundred years after his death, first with the Broadway smash Spring Awakening and now with Nicholas Kazan’s Mlle. God, a contemporary stage adaptation of Wedekind’s Lulu Plays, perhaps best known as the basis for silent film star Louise Brooks’ most famous flick, Pandora’s Box.
Like her early 20th Century namesake, Kazan’s Lulu (Annika Marks) lives her life for sexual pleasure. Were she a man, she’d be called a Don Juan, a playboy, a stud. As a woman, there’s another four-letter word starting with the letter S that many would use to describe her. As to how Lulu would describe herself, when one of her several dozen lovers wonders whether Lulu ever thinks about anything other than sex, the free spirit responds, “What else is there? Sex itself leads to everything else,” and later, when asked what her justification is for having “all these men,” Lulu responds with a solemn “The only place we can worship is when we have sex.” And sex she does have, in abundance, with both men and women. “There are so many,” she confesses, “it’s hard to keep track.” (Lulu’s solution: To assign them each a number.)
The nubile beauty’s conquests range from besotted painter Melville (Keith Szarabajika) to sports superstar (and amateur underwear model) The Prince (Kareem Ferguson) to social climber Charles (Andy Lauer) to Charles’ nerdy brother Trib (Tasso Feldman) to Charles’ uptight, virginal fiancée Harriet (Kim Chueh) to her very own Australian half-brother Kip (Will Harris) to prison guard Lewis (Jon Kellam) to power lesbian Eleanor (Heather Robinson) to The Governor himself (John Nielsen). All right, to be precise, Lulu hasn’t had sex with all nine of the above, but give her enough time and the right circumstances and no one would put it past her.
Wedekind’s Lulu Plays (Erdegeist [Earth Spirit] and Die Büchse der Pandora [Pandora’s Box]) come across, at least in their plot synopses, as full-blown melodrama. Poor but resourceful Lulu is rescued from a life on the streets by a wealthy newspaper publisher, marries a medic who commits suicide when he learns of her dissolute past, cheats on her husband with a circus artist and a lesbian countess, shoots the publisher, goes to jail, escapes with the help of the countess, and that’s only the first play.
Kazan’s Mlle. God is considerably harder to pigeonhole. Act One Scene One is dark romantic comedy, Act One Scene Two is dark screwball farce, and Act Two is stark, dark drama. About all that the three have in common is their darkness, and the character of Lulu who is the centerpiece of them all.
Mlle. God’s extended first scene has Lulu proposed to by middle-aged painter Melville, a man she loves for his talent, though certainly not for his sagging body or his cock. After all, in Lulu’s words, “You’ve seen one, …” As for Melville’s proposal and the ring he offers her on both knees, Lulu’s response is to break out in gales of laughter and cries of “It’s hilarious! You’re delusional!” and a request to keep the ring as a souvenir of his love. Not quite your Reese Witherspoon/Sandra Bullock romantic comedy, but there are moments when it comes close.
Mlle. God: The Farce has Lulu hiding a man behind each of her bedroom doors just before uber-shy Trib pops in to prepare her for the bad news his older brother Charles will soon be giving her. (He’s dropping Lulu to marry upper crust Harvard student Harriet.) A glimpse at Harriet’s picture prompts Lulu to comment, “She’s gorgeous!” and to wonder hopefully, “She won’t do threesomes, will she?” Charles and Harriet arrive not long after, and before you can say Sappho, Lulu and the virginal heiress are tangling tongues, a shock which sends Charles running into the bedroom where The Prince has been hiding and the next thing you know, Lulu has let out a blood-curdling scream.
Post intermission, in a tonal shift even more radical than the one that took place in the 1980s when funny Mary Tyler Moore Show Lou Grant became serious Lou Grant in Lou Grant, Mlle. God’s mood-switching second act turns from dark froth to stark, violent drama.
All but three of Mlle. God’s ten roles are double cast, the most notable exception being Marks, the dynamic young actress whose stunning half-hour monolog in last year’s Behind The Gates won her a Scenie for Best Performance By A Featured Actress/Drama. Though having a single actress play Lulu gives Marks the exhausting assignment of performing the role five times a week, including twice on Sundays, it’s no wonder Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles has opted not to double-cast the demanding title role. The energy, vitality, depth, passion, and raw emotion that Marks brings to Lulu would be hard, if not downright impossible for another actress to reproduce, and the fact that she plays Lulu in three different genres makes her work all the more impressive. If Mlle. God is as successful, involving, and entertaining as it is, Annika Marks has a lot to do with its success. There’s not a dull moment whenever Marks is on stage, and fortunately that’s all the time.
This is not to downplay director Scott Paulin’s many contributions, or those of the actors mentioned in this opening night review. It’s simply that as her work in Behind The Gates, The Something-Nothing, and The Last Seder (all reviewed here) have proven, among L.A.’s up-and-coming acting talents, Marks is someone very special indeed. Whether flirtatious (“Oh, that is big! You’re a quick responder, aren’t you?”) or self-assured (“It’s not perfume, Trib. It’s me.”) or bitchy (“Marrying Harriet would be tragic if you were a better lover.”), or brutally honest (“You can’t marry that woman. She has not cunt! She’s terribly pretty, but she has no cunt.”), or responding to yet another declaration of love (“There are just so many of you!”), or stating one of her life credos (“What I am doing is trying to turn blasphemy into sacrament.”), Marks nails every one of Lulu’s ever-morphing moments.
Supporting performances are uniformly terrific, from Szarabajika’s (sym)pathetic Melville to Lauer’s neurotic, self-serving Charles to Ferguson’s sexy hotshot Prince to Feldman’s adorably timid Trib to Chueh’s naïve but willing Harriet to Harris’ big teddy-bear of a Kim to Kellam’s swaggering Lewis to Robinson’s smooth, sophisticated Eleanor to Nielsen’s cocksure, brutal Governor. (Only Ferguson and Harris will be appearing in both the “Muses” cast reviewed here and the “Models” cast, which performs alternately.)
Design elements are equally striking. Richard Hoover’s expansive set morphs (with the help of numerous cast members in black) from art studio (with humungous rain-dripped skylight) to multi-doored apartment to cramped prison cell. (The Act Two set change has front row seats moved to either side of the stage, the better to squeeze Lulu into a tighter-fitting cell.) Hoover lights his own set quite strikingly. Jason Thompson, StageSceneLA’s 2009-2010 Award-winning Projection Designer Of The Year proves once again why no one does projections quite as spectacularly in L.A. theater, this time with some great black-and-white “simulcasts.” John Zalewski’s sound design (his sixth absolutely brilliant one since September) is yet another stunner, proving that no one underscores suspense better than Zalewski. Christina Haatainen Jones gets thumbs up for her character-appropriate costumes, including several for Lulu that are removed quickly for some flashes of nudity. Rebecca Cohn is production manager and Caitlin Reinhart is stage manager.
Though Mlle. God’s mood changes are a bit too schizophrenic for my taste, under Paulin’s dynamic direction and featuring a star turn as stunning as the one delivered by Marks, there are ample reasons to sample Kazan’s play, not the least of which is its exciting, brand new venue, the Atwater Village Theatre. Who said L.A. isn’t a great theater town?
Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA @ Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village.
January 28, 2011
Photos: Patricia Williams