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A Play Called Lulu...

August 13th, 2006 (04:38 am)
current mood: stunned

© 2006 D. Gordon

Silent Theatre. Silent theater.

Okay, sometimes I just feel like a poseur.

When I first saw the play Lulu mentioned, I thought it'd be a piece about Louise Brooks (think Lulu in Hollywood). I'm a big fan, and heck - I just saw Pandora's Box again about two months ago, so I wanted to see what they did with the material. It didn't hit me until I got to the theater that... they might really mean silent theater. And that's what it was: the play Lulu, the main basis for the movie Pandora's Box, performed silent movie style, with intertitles and piano accompaniment.

The performance is part of the New York International Fringe Festival (something else I don't know anything about), and the Connelly Theater reflects that. It's a small space, early twentieth century, with the original tin ceiling (and walls, and railings...). The theater staff is a bunch of kids, likely volunteers, and the whole place is buried in the wilderness of the East Village.

The play is really ambitious. Not only does it have intertitles, but the actors wear heavy white face makeup with black lipstick, and everyone's dressed in shades of gray. Their lips move, but no sound emerges. Most of the lighting leans towards enhancing the black and white effect. Actually a pretty innovative concept.

Where the play doesn't work is in the professionalism needed to pull off the production. Props kept falling at inappropriate times (although recovery was pretty good). The actors didn't have the "lip-emoting" down well, so that lip-reading was out (although it came across well in one bit of comedic dialog). Lighting cues were off, with effects not showing up when the audience had been primed for them (most notable in a "photography" sequence). The stage went dark for intertitles, but actors' heads / hands / torsos blocked the text for the more lengthy ones. The pianist (who deserves kudos for both his playing and his composition) was occasionally part of the story, but he was seated too far over - anyone in the extreme right seats wouldn't have been able to see anything by the piano. And seeing's pretty important when there's no dialogue.

But most importantly, the production didn't seem to incorporate the artistry behind a silent film. There was an introductory scene presenting the "freaks" that never quite integrated well. Given that most of the actors played multiple parts, it was difficult to understand just who some were at certain points - and to understand just what was going on. I have seen a lot of silents; I have seen silents where not a lot was going on. I have never seen a silent in which I had no idea what was going on. That would have been the kiss of death, and filmmakers learned very early on how to craft a story using no sound. But with this production, the narrative just never made it off the stage for several stretches. If I hadn't already known the basic story from watching the film, I would have been very, very unhappy.

It looks like the Silent Theatre Company of Chicago plans to focus on silent works; they'll be performing another play, Vaudeville, in a few weeks (although not in New York). And maybe the problem was that this was their first New York performance and they were still ironing out the wrinkles. Whatever it is, I hope they get their production a little tighter (and there's a lot to overcome), otherwise this novel idea will remain just that.