Monday, August 31, 2009

Femme too fatale in Dulaang UP’s Lulu

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 8.31.2009

Despite the ample flesh displayed, this play sang the body electric off-key

AT VARIOUS TIMES THROUGH Frank Wedekind’s “Lulu,” which Dulaang UP recently staged for three weeks at Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater in UP Diliman, the central character was described as an “angel,” a “miracle” (“isa[ng] himala sa maalikabok na lansangan,” in Joel Saracho’s Filipino translation), a being of “pure passion.”

“Lulu” is a merging of two plays featuring the same character, the titles of which are telling. “Earth Spirit” came out in 1895, followed by “Pandora’s Box” in 1904, the latter inexorably tying the Lulu character with the archetypal woman in Greek mythology.

If all that isn’t persuasive enough, there is Wedekind himself, unambiguous about the nature of his most famous creation: “Lulu is not a real character, but the personification of primitive sexuality who inspires evil unaware.”

The “Lulu” plays, with their fervid glorification of a woman’s sexual rapaciousness and the devastation it wreaks on the world around her, has served as an Ur-text in the evolution of the iconic femme fatale in popular culture—from Marlene Dietrich’s Lola-Lola in “The Blue Angel” to Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity” (notice the hommage in names?), from Hitchcock’s gallery of deadly blondes to the Botticelli-tressed Glenn Close as the terrifying Alex Forrest in “Fatal Attraction.”

Louise Brooks as the quintessential Lulu in G.W. Pabst's 1929 silent film of “Pandora's Box”

They all owe a debt to “Lulu,” more specifically to her now-celebrated cinematic embodiment, the Lulu of American actress Louise Brooks in German director G.W. Pabst’s landmark 1929 silent film of “Pandora’s Box.”

Yet to play Lulu as the familiar femme fatale—the way director Dexter Santos’ Dulaang UP production did—is to fall into a trap. The text itself, along with Wedekind’s helpful description, is clear: Lulu is a preternatural creature, above and beyond the merely human—an “earth spirit” who treads the earth but is not of it.

Her “positioning [is] outside of morality, and the issues of guilt and innocence,” said film scholar Mary Ann Doane (in the Criterion Collection DVD release of the film). The destruction she brings isn’t intentional or willful, because, as a “pure presence, a pure image,” she is “a character for whom the past has no weight... a creature of the instant—of instantaneity and spontaneity, ontology rather than psychology.”

In other words, a femme unaware she is fatale.

That distinction is crucial. Wedekind, in describing Lulu as “inspir[ing] evil unaware,” designed her to be the apotheosis of erotic representation, but unlike the men and women who would lose their wits over her, her sexual voraciousness isn’t the function of her loins, but the primal expression of her sense of freedom.

While seemingly unmoored from motivational underpinnings, Lulu’s anarchic, iconoclastic nature did have a purpose: It was the shattering blast of modernity Wedekind had lobbed at fin-de-siècle Germany, with its smothering rubric of social, economic and psychosexual conventions—the real aim of his subversive dramaturgy.

Pabst reportedly auditioned numerous women, including Dietrich, before settling on Brooks for his Lulu. The smoldering Dietrich (25 at that time to Brooks’ 21) was rejected because, as Pabst explained, her overripe sexuality, her all-too-seductive look threatened to turn “Pandora’s Box” into a “burlesque.”

The gaze of “pure presence,” more “ontology than psychology”

Pabst wanted an actress who combined allure and innocence, sensuality and grace. When he found Brooks, he photographed her exactly as Wedekind had conjured Lulu: an ethereal presence, seemingly separate from the common humanity around her, her stunning face—that otherworldly gaze—and lithe figure always more luminous, the light more alive in her presence.

In the face of such vital incandescence, it was easy to believe why men both high and low—and one well-born woman, Countess Geschwitz— would throw themselves at her feet even if it led to ruin and death.

“Why, you avenging angel!,” the hapless Dr. Schön tells Lulu at one point.

Was it too hard for Dulaang UP’s “Lulu” to find an actor of both striking radiance and feather-light charm? It would seem so. Che Ramos, the Lulu of the English version, was a virtual Amazon, hard and cold and cutting, her deep voice and uninflected delivery dragging her character to depths of willfulness and world-weariness it needn’t have plumbed.

Che Ramos as Lulu and Gabs Santos as Alwa in the English version of Dulaang UP's “Lulu,” directed by Dexter Santos

The Lulu of the Filipino version is even more problematic. Tuxqs Rutaquio played her as a transvestite—as did Andoy Ranay the role of Countess Geschwitz.

Santos might have been aiming for a layered, more topical reading of “Lulu” in this reworked version. But Wedekind’s material, one of the most indestructibly Expressionist texts in drama with its engorged dialogue and baroque characterization, defies any search for subtext.

Tuxqs Rutaquio plays Lulu as a transvestite in the Filipino version (translation by Joel Saracho), with Alex Cortez as Schigolch

So when someone compliments Dr. Schön—a pillar of society who has taken for a bride a man in drag—thus, “Kinaiinggitan ka ng marami dahil sa ’yong asawa!,” the line had to be taken for what it was—not as a winking, sardonic quip, but as a statement of fact. The Filipino play’s severe, somber tone, in any case, indicated it wasn’t playing its ludicrous premise for farcical effect.

The question then: What kind of bourgeois, broken society was this that still required Lulu’s destructive presence, if it had by now attained a level of carnal emancipation that should render the unfettered sexual id Lulu represented all but superfluous?

Poor understanding
On a more basic level, both versions of “Lulu” suffered from the facile decision to play her as a blunt, consciously spiteful figure—a femme fatale no different from the grubby, greedy horde around her.

But even femme fatales have irreducible traits: On top of being enticing, they have to be canny, calculating, mysterious, intelligent, resourceful. What they cannot be is unlikable, or, at the very least, boring. Danger, fascination, desire—these are at the heart of a femme fatale’s hold over her men and her audience.

Ramos' Lulu with Paolo O'Hara as Dr. Schön

While Ramos’ all-steel performance vitiated any strain of genuine magnetism, there remained a smidgen of plausibility in seeing her female wiles attract all that mayhem.

The Filipino version, alas, not only pounded plausibility to dust with baffling flourishes, like Ranay’s cross-dressing aristocrat Geschwitz coming out at one point in a pink tutu. It also had Rutaquio’s florid attack—in one scene, he fired a gun then blew the smoke from the barrel, a gesture straight out of B noir or a Tarantino flick—pushing the material headlong into classic Joey Gosiengfiao territory: camp with a straight face. Burlesque, in short.

Andoy Ranay's feather-bedecked Countess Geschwitz in the Filipino version

To this morass, the rest of the cast responded with their own state of disorder: Paolo O’Hara offered a laboriously played Dr. Schön in the English play, a part that thoroughly flew over the head of Ian Lomongo in Filipino. Missy Maramara’s Ring Master garbled her lines, while Jojit Lorenzo’s aced his in the vernacular.

JC Santos was an attractive Alwa, Dr. Schön’s equally besotted son, but he barely connected with his character’s Oedipal core. His English-language counterpart, Gabs Santos (no relation), emoted shallowly but, along with Meynard Peñalosa’s Schigolch, had the clearest diction—small mercy in a play otherwise lost in verbal and dramatic incoherence.

Only one actor seemed to find the intuitive truth in her character: Angeli Bayani as the English-version Geschwitz. With riveting stillness, she managed to convey the sense of Sapphic estrangement, the exotic dislocation her character shared with the other, bigger rara avis in the room, Lulu.

Santos did get the externals right. His physical staging was spare yet expansive, getting much of the Expressionistic touchstones right: the raked stage, the massive angled beams, the smoky trapdoors, the shadowy lighting; the jangling, mashed-up guitar-and-violin soundtrack that sounded like a demented cousin to Anton Karas’ zither-playing in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man.”

The one light he needed to get right, though, was the cosmic force that was Lulu. True to their darker tint, Santos’ two Lulus were often smudged in shadow, more grim than beguiling, more earth than spirit.

Despite the ample flesh displayed, this play sang the body electric off-key, neither pulsing with lust nor trilling with passion—a parched, frigid “Lulu.”


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said... sa movie.ang layo.

proletartist said...

Ang sarap ng review mo, Gibbs! :) Kudos!

beektur said...

I was gonna say that it's quite unfair to compare the characterizations of the movie actresses with the stage actors but then I realized the movie references were only there to set context to the character, and not as comparisons of productions. Having said that, subtlety is really a near-impossible area to achieve in live theater. But two names keeping popping in my head while reading your review: Tetchie Agbayani and Claudia Zobel. Also, RS Francisco without the chinese costume? I am carbon-dating myself with my references pero, yun na yun.

gibbs cadiz said...

thanks, PROLETARTIST. i enjoy reading your reviews, too. :)

buti na lang nakuha mo na it's not a comparison between film and stage, BEEKTUR. :)

beektur said...

knock, knock..hello?! ako pa, di ko makuha. di naman ako anomalous, este anonymous, este annoying, noh.

Anonymous said...

Though i do not agree with some of the views, a well-researched review. i like the fact na binase pa din sa text ang review, hindi na actually kailangan iyong mga references sa movies kung talagang strong naman ang point ng text.

angeli bayani said...

hi gibbs!

permit me to repost this. thank you :)

- angeli bayani

Anonymous said...


wag mo na ipost sa iyo. isipin mo muna :)

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