Alan Howard and Anna Friel in Lulu(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
Alan Howard and Anna Friel in Lulu
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
The Kennedy Center festival of The Arts of the United Kingdom, abbreviated in logo form as UK-KC, concludes this week with Lulu (through July 15). Festival theater offerings have featured several takes on storytelling and character, tapping source material from commedia dell'arte to a 19th-century realist novel and the early years of the European avant garde. The three large productions (I missed the one-woman Spoonface Steinberg, which dealt with an autistic child) all inhabited worlds wherein love looms large. In Lulu love's a commodity and obsession; in The Mill on the Floss it's warped by repression or propriety; in A Servant to Two Masters, it moved beyond the play proper as the audience literally tossed signs of adoration for the protean hero over the footlights.

Lulu, best known as an opera by Alban Berg or in one of several silent film versions, was penned in sprawling play form by Frank Wedekind between 1892 and 1894. This production is newly minted by London's Almeida Theatre Company under the direction of Jonathan Kent. The vamp heroine is variously interpretable as lethal seductress, exploited victim, healthily sexed woman in the wrong place at the wrong time, or product of childhood abuse.

We meet Lulu in an artist's studio where she is posing for her portrait in the presence of her husband as well as her former lover. The husband, a sixty-something, porcine doctor (Roger Swaine) who never lets Lulu out of his sight, drops dead at the end of the scene. A young painter (James Hillier), an idealist who becomes Lulu's second husband, slits his throat at the end of the second scene when he learns the she has a past. Husband number three, Dr. Schoning, is the ex-lover from the opening scene, with whom Lulu has been carrying on for years. Alan Howard plays him in dark glasses, looking like a burned-out, dyspeptically middle-aged cross between John Lennon and Jack Nicholson. Schoning is a newspaper editor who is blackmailed into the marriage after witnessing the artist's suicide; he supports Lulu in splendor but he is reduced, through her indifference to him, to shooting heroin and spying on her escapades with the butler and with an acrobat. Scene three waxes farcical as lovers pop in an out, one of them diving behind curtains and under the bed. Lulu aims a pistol at a visiting lover but shoots her husband instead, and the act ends with her inheriting the editor's fortune, marrying his playwright son (Oliver Milburn), and fleeing to Paris.

Act II opens at an over-the-top party of gambling and drinking, hosted by Lulu in her new digs. But an investigator has found her out and threatens to turn her in for murder if she doesn't pay him a huge sum of money. A sudden market collapse renders all the gamblers, including Lulu's husband, broke. (Wedekind tossed in a government overthrow to force an ending to scene three--no one can accuse this playwright of eschewing the multiple deus ex machina). In the final scene, Lulu is reduced to streetwalking, living in squalor with the (unsuccessful) playwright husband she ceased loving long ago and the alcoholic father who first put her on the street well before her adolescence. She is also pursued by a lesbian countess (Johanna ter Steege), the one admirer who never gets to sleep with her and the one who is faithful to the end. Only the countess still finds the original more beautiful than the portrait that has remained in view for much of the performance, a portrait which fascinates the father and last husband long after Lulu herself has become repulsive to them.

These five scenes were broken into two plays at one point in Wedekind's myriad rewrites, but in Nicholas Wright's adaptation (from a translation by Wes Williams) they fit a tidy dramaturgy of exposition-rising action-crisis-climax-denouement. What is far less clear than the dramatic structure is what we are to make of this particular Lulu, played by Anna Friel. By now, Ben Brantley's New York Times assessment of Friel's legs as "lethal weapons" has probably become legend. All of Rob Howell's costumes cling to Friel's tiny body, and many of the dresses feature metallic fabric or beading that moves like fringe. Two outfits are transparent. Yet Friel's performance radiates flirt-and-party girl far more than ruthless schemer or calculating victimizer. The actress is at her most masterful when the character's security, both financial and legal, falls apart; we watch her machinations as she tries to buy off three predators by playing them against each other. Friel's edgy, intelligent drive at this point struck me as far more engaging and less generic than her earlier teasing, show-off stuff. This shift may be part of a strategy to work with the idea that the glamorous Lulu is a projection of others' fantasies, with very little "there" there. The kept woman/child wife of Act I says outright, "I don't know who I am." She spends most of her first marriage in dancing clothes which she can't even choose or put on by herself. She recognizes that she was taught depravity, but what else has she learned? Even as hostess of her Parisian salon, she says "I've only got my body. That's all I am."

If Friel/Lulu is lethal, this production suggests that it's because lovers are naïfs, egomaniacs, profiteers, or creepily obsessive, not because the object of their fantasies is out for much more than fun, consumerism, and security, and certainly not because she has a predatory agenda. They see (or pay to construct) what they want, and I think it's no accident that this Lulu is largely television sunny and skinny rather than opera-sultry and sensuous. It's easier to project onto a relatively blank screen. Even when she turns her last trick, there's a girlish sincerity to Friel's proposition, sordid surroundings and all. The man seated next to me, a seventyish radiologist with whom I conversed briefly before the lights went down, leaned over twice during Lulu's glamorous phase to tell me "you could be her twin." Dark hair and a size six are the extent of the possible resemblance, but my point is that no one would attempt a pickup (or even a compliment) by comparison with a predator. At most, this Lulu is a Sally Bowles loving the limelight, the clothes, the champagne, and watching others jump when she gives the command.

Lulu meets her end in the London slums at the hands of Jack the Ripper (Peter Sullivan), a figure who, in this production, lurks at the edge of the stage preceding every scene and upstage for much of the penultimate one. The other lurker/watcher is a 13-year-old girl, a guest at Lulu's Paris party. Dressed in white, schooled in a convent, and the object of her mama's defensive protection, the girl is told by her preening parent not to move from her chair. When the mother's finances collapse along with everyone else's, her first thought is to accept the proposal of a 65-five-year-old financier for her child's hand. This is Lulu redux; guttersnipe or society daughter, she's for sale.

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Last month's The Mill on the Floss accomplished what one of my college English professors said he could never imagine: It dramatized the rich interior life of a George Eliot character. Eliot's Maggie Tulliver is a semi-autobiographical heroine. The clever sister of a doltish brother growing up in the English provinces in the 1830s, Maggie, like Eliot (nee Mary Ann Evans), gets too little formal schooling and pulls too much K.P. to be an entirely

The Mill on the Floss(Photo: Mark Douet)
The Mill on the Floss
(Photo: Mark Douet)
happy camper. Eliot, of course, escaped and grew up to succeed at both scholarship and fiction, although the fact that she lived openly with a married man kept her out of some social circles. Maggie has no such luck. The man who loves her is her brother's nemesis; the man she herself loves is engaged to her cousin. She drowns at the end of book and play in a flood that represents her overflowing emotions as well as the high tide of small-minded double standards.

The London-based Shared Experience Theatre commissioned an adaptation of the Eliot work by Helen Edmundson. Living up to the company's name, Edmundson created three Maggies. The youngest, played with impetuous exuberance by Pauline Turner, is subdued in her early teens by the family's run of bad finances and bad health. In her stead emerges an ascetic, religious Maggie, portrayed here with austere intensity by Jessica Lloyd. Maggie 2 convinces herself that self-denial is the route to inner peace; the girl who used to love fishing, books, and ideas forces herself to scrub floors and eschew social contact.

When a bit of the family fortune is recovered and Maggie can get away from being the all-purpose servant, she accepts the invitation of a wealthy cousin for an extended visit. Enter Maggie 3 (Caroline Faber), who blossoms in the world of music, books, and visitors. The third and first Maggies are soulmates, but the second Maggie--the prude--has a way of popping up at bad moments. When Maggie 3 is finally dressing up for the first time in years, her second self materializes to criticize the showiness of her garb. "Who let her in?" asks Maggie 1 of Maggie 3, as 3 pushes 2 aside.

Maggie's story was framed both by Bunny Christie's set and by two clever pieces of staging by co-directors Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale. he set was dominated by a slightly slanted, upstage platform that extended the full width of the stage and mostly represented the bank of the River Floss, but also did duty as the upstairs of the Tulliver house and a pier. Furniture is mutable, this spare design seemed to say; a few odd pieces showed up to accent an otherwise empty playing space, and each piece seemed to be sinking at an angle into the stage floor. Only the river was permanent, important, (trans)formative. In the opening scene, little Maggie is reading a book about witches: A real witch, it says, will swim, but an innocent woman will drown. Upstage, an actress was dropped via a harness through the floor of the pier. Dangling upside down, her hair flowing beneath her, she was the watery victim of a witch hunt. The final tableau of the evening depicted Maggie herself, the ultimate innocent woman, hanging in the same position.

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Whoever thinks theatrical confectionery is a lesser art than, say, neoclassic tragedy, might reconsider after sampling the work of Jason Watkins in the Young Vic/Royal Shakespeare Company's co-production of A Servant to Two Masters. Watkins played the title character with enough energy and athleticism for three gymnasts and enough precision to give all four Marx brothers a run for their money. He looks a bit like Bill Irwin in performance, combining a rube's earnest devotion to a task with a boulevardier's raised eyebrow.

The production, which showcases an adaptation by Lee Hall, followed its Kennedy Center run with a stint at the American Spoleto Festival. Hall's text is a Britishized version of Carlo Goldoni's mid-18th century work. Goldoni's own project was to sentimentalize and tame the formulaic elements of commedia dell'arte, known for its character types, predictable plots, and sometimes lewd gags. By Goldoni's day, commedia was in disrepute, and making the basic features more bourgeois seemed like a way to recapture the fun while discarding the dated.

In a way, this is exactly what the new production does. Directed by Tim Supple with sets and costumes by Robert Innes Hopkins, this Servant offers a picture-pretty Venice backing a rich-girls-get-rich-boys comedy of mistaken identity. The young lovers, separated because their fathers can't agree on terms, are predictably fashionable, shallow, and self-absorbed. The main couple consists of a young woman disguised as a man and the swain she has been seeking since he was forced to go into hiding. Neither knows that the other is in Venice, and both hire the title character, Truffaldino, to work for them. He justifies this overtime to the audience by citing "a downsizing of the service economy." Other nods to contemporary culture include Truffaldino telling the audience "I coulda been a contender" except that one master, dubbed "Mr. Anorexia," keeps forgetting to feed him.

The play's centerpiece is a scene in which Truffaldino races to serve a multi-course meal to both of his masters while keeping each unaware of the other. It involves juggling plates, slamming doors, and taking orders from both masters and from the chef. Meanwhile, Truffaldino's own stomach is grumbling, and the biggest obstacle is keeping out of the food himself. Watkins, with outrageous chutzpah, almost managed to have it both ways: In a bit

Jason Watkinsin A Servant to Two Masters
Jason Watkins
in A Servant to Two Masters
polished to within an inch of its life, he spilled a bowl of pasta, slurped it off the floor, realized he shouldn't have done this, spit the pasta back into the bowl (yes, the audience gasped), and then dropped to the floor to wipe up the greasy spot. While undulating on his belly, his eyes became very round; those hip gyrations in the name of housekeeping were yielding unexpected pleasure.

The play's other famous moment has Truffaldino backed into a mistaken identity corner when he airs out the clothes in both masters' trunks. Watson cheerily tossed garments at the audience and asked spectators to shake them out for him. It seemed a silly gag until the masters' voices were heard, the servant panicked, and he begged for the clothes back. The audience, completely in this consummate clown's thrall, sent a spontaneous wave of garments flying back toward the stage. When a later, close scrape had Truffaldino congratulate himself by saying, "they're cheering in the gallery," Watson's by now doting fans erupted with the sort of affirmation that usually only greets Peter Pan's request for us to assert that we believe in fairies.

It was the willingness to believe, to be seduced, to go along for the ride that made Watson's performance such a treat. Commedia dell'arte was always about the audience being wrapped around the little fingers of master performers. The woman who walked out saying that she thought she ought to familiarize herself with the original had missed the point; Watkins is as original as this genre gets and his performance was fresh in both senses of the word.