Sunday, December 02, 2007

Out of Pandora's box

At last, mind-expanding, nerve-rattling theater at BAM! I caught Michael Thalheimer's staging of Lulu (imported from Berlin's Thalia Theater) on its last night yesterday and it was everything the stage can be: a visceral, punch-in-the-gut experience that depended not on sets (there were none) or gimmicks but on directorial inventivity and actors willing to go the distance—some of them actually looked a bit frazzled during the curtain call. The show combined both of Frank Wedekind's Lulu plays in under two hours. The action took place in front of a large white screen that started at the back of the stage and progressively moved closer to the audience, so that by the end the actors only had a relatively small space right in front of us to move in. This created a sense of fate closing in on the characters, particularly the doomed Lulu, and was only one of the smart ways Thalheimer created a sense of organized chaos out of very little.

In the title role, Fritzi Haberlandt was a revelation, a broken doll all gawky limbs and gamine sexuality, revealing widening crevices of despair as Lulu's hurled toward her demise. The rest of the cast was equally great, with special kudos to Norman Hacker, who was a ball of pent-up frustration, lust and energy as Dr. Schöning; he threw himself into a particularly frenzied sex scene with Haberlandt, shouting like a damned man with his pants and underwear down on his ankles. It was so virtuosic that someone in the audience burst into spontaneous applause, as if honoring a great solo during a concert.

This is precisely the kind of theater BAM is best at showing. Why the Brooklyn institution wastes its time on star vehicles like Ian McKellen's King Lear or, I fear, the upcoming Macbeth with Patrick Stewart, is beyond me. Actually it isn't: It's clear that these shows are financially successful so it's no mystery why they get imported from London. From an artistic standpoint, however, they are far from satisfying. They are like glasses of warm milk compared to the bracing electroshocks delivered by Thalheim or Thomas Ostermeier, the two Germans who seem to alternate seasons at BAM's Harvey Theater. Now if only BAM could add Christoph Marthaler to the rotation, I'd be willing to shut up about the boring Shakespeares. More Germans, less Brits, please!

And now for some self-promotion: I will fill in for John Schaefer tomorrow, December 3, and host Soundcheck, starting at 2pm. You can listen at 93.9FM if you're in New York, or on the web. We have some great guests in store, so please tune in!

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