Style trumps substance in a new encounter with Lulu as well, though the trouble in the Washington Shakespeare Company’s dalliance with Franz Wedekind’s notoriously loose lady starts with the adaptation, a lascivious entendre-fest courtesy of the playwright Nicholas Wright. While you might expect a certain amount of psychological probing when the author of Mrs. Klein gets his hands on a story about a woman so fatally alluring that men think of her as Eve reincarnate, Wright’s analytical excavations don’t get much beyond the surface: Abused and exploited from an early age, Sara Barker’s title character is forever the acted-upon, never the actor, the blank canvas (a movie screen?) on which her lovers project their desires.
That leaves room for the actors around Barker to snack lustily on the various stylized eccentricities director Christopher Henley provides for them—one of our antiheroine’s husbands, played with rueful relish by Angel Torres, has a taste for both the whip and the needle—but it makes it a touch difficult to come to grips with the woman herself.
Of course that’s partly the point: Lulu’s meant to be elusive. But if she’s to be a sufficiently intriguing enigma to command our attention for two and a half hours, the actress needs to project the sense that Lulu has a discoverable nature, even if we (even if Lulu) can’t figure it out. That’s a tough nut, and if Barker has cracked it, her solution is getting lost amid all the leering and the lip-smacking that surrounds her.
A less stylized interpretation than Henley’s Expressionist romp (think campy, declamatory line-readings and blue eye shadow applied with an airbrush) might make more sense, too, of the marked tonal shift that comes after intermission. That’s when Lulu and her decadent Berlin cohort flee a murder charge and alight first in the salons of Paris and then, after a fiscal crisis—does every vintage play have a fiscal crisis, or does it just seem that way this season?—in the alleys of London.
In Whitechapel, to be precise, which will alert the attentive to what fate Lulu is likely to meet when she’s forced to put her wiles to work on the streets. Henley stages her last days with a stripped-down ruthlessness that stands in sharp relief against the evening’s early antics, and in that tautness the lineaments of tragedy expose themselves at last—too late to make anything truly touching out of Wedekind’s parable of the Fall but just in time to suggest that there might be more emotional fodder to mine from the story one day.