In this age of Girls Gone Foolish to Earn a Stupid Hat, a flash of stocking isn't shocking, but it certainly was in 1840s Munich. There a young Spanish woman with a "Spider Dance" that depended for its impact not on the performer's skill but her lack of panties managed to snare a king's heart, leading him eventually to abdicate, a broken man. And while writer-director Gary Graves and his CentralWorks collaborators chose to take the high road in their new Lola Montez and keep her clothes on, Lola's effect on King Ludwig I of Bavaria is no less electric for it.
Ludwig is in the third decade of a bloodless marriage, and pauses from his modernization projects to compose regrettable poetry about his wintry heart. Lola is alleged to carry a dagger and a miniature pistol on her corseted person. As they gaze into each other's eyes and read Cervantes to each other, Ludwig's wife Therese tries to hold it together back in the real world. His philandering is nothing new, but at least he used to protect his wife's dignity. Now he's being perfectly beastly, revolution is afoot, and Therese has her children and the kingdom to fret over.
There's an intense moment where Therese enjoins interior minister Karl Reichart to intervene if he doesn't act, she tells him, "you will be hanging from a lamppost." Up to this point, Klahr Thorsen had regal and graceful nailed, and here she shows Therese's steely sinews. As Karl, Sean Williford (Thorsen's real-life fiancée) gets to do something he's barely done on an East Bay stage: stand up straight. He's been the go-to guy for characters who crawl, cower, snivel, or freak out, so it's a pleasure to see him dignified, seething, and almost painfully rigid.
That rigidity contrasts nicely with the king's increasing flamboyance. Louis Parnell is rich as Ludwig, with a chewy voice and subtly haunted face. At the outset he is deeply in love with Bavaria and especially Munich. The opening scene gives a sense of the era's politics and of Ludwig's own thrift he's busy devising clever ways to avoid paying the increased fees vendors want to charge him. It's a nice set-up to show underscore the Lola effect: By the climax, Ludwig has abandoned all concern for finances and appearances.
Jan Zvaifler's accent verges on overkill, but that's the point. Like Mata Hari, Lola was a fabrication, the Irish-born Elizabeth Gilbert who refashioned herself as a passionate child of Sevilla and the widow of a martyred political agitator. There should be something extreme about the character, and Zvaifler gets that without making her a cartoon the dance she does do for Ludwig, although quite constrained, shows off some elegant flamenco hand work. It's possible the love Lola professes for Ludwig is real, if not exactly the kind he's hoping for; Zvaifler keeps us guessing.
But that's Graves' style, keeping things ambiguous to the end. In our celebrity-mad time, the story would be painted in the broadest brushstrokes by the media: hysterical heroines, men made stupid by lust, and nothing more. And while that's still the basic gist, the writing and the ensemble take the time to go deeper. It's hard to say who's really scheming, and who is honestly looking out for Ludwig's interests.
Sound designer Greg Scharpen lays off his beloved explosions mixed with animal noises, instead juxtaposing the stately and the elegiac, especially with different recordings of the adagio from Joaquín Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez." The costuming highlights the poles of Ludwig's existence. Therese's gowns are pale, puffy and fussy, Lola's dark and sleek. When the stage limits the set design, such details count for a lot. So does the blocking, which seems more communicative here than in some CentralWorks shows. Ludwig and Lola spiral around each other, suggesting both dancing and falling in love, while Ludwig's interactions with Therese and Karl are often perpendicular and sterile, the actors either set at sharp angles to one another or facing each other bluntly.
Occasionally the pace flags. Ludwig has moments where the king examines what's happening to him in choppy, half-formed poetry, and while formally beautiful, they're not completely necessary with such a strong actor in the role. Parnell could convey the same information with less text, especially in the close confines of the Berkeley City Club. But offsetting the slow moments is the fact that the actor interactions are so consistently charged that it barely matters who's onstage together. Even though we know this can't end well the real Lola Montez died alone and penniless of pneumonia in New York, after living in Grass Valley for awhile such an exquisitely human story, with its deceptions and revelations, is as compelling as a well-executed striptease.
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