It’s tough being king ... Ludwig of Bavaria is a proactive, very public monarch. Nothing, whether extensive engineering projects such as roads and canals, or grandiose museums and other monuments to the arts, is too good for his people, and the exchequer be damned. He’ll find a way to make Munich the envy of even Paris and Vienna.
The private king (if that’s not an oxymoron) is a different man from the capricious, headstrong visionary ever in the limelight. Ludwig is a sensitive, searching soul, a would-be poet of Romantic verses. His decades-long marriage to his queen, celebrated in a gala repetition of wedding vows just before Oktoberfest each year, has become a loveless one. Is this just another sublimation, a sacrifice he should accept for the good of his kingdom, as his minister suggests? Or is there another free spirit, a kindred soul with whom he could soar, eagle-like, into the light?
His unspoken plea seems to be answered by the advent of an itinerant Spanish dancer, the title character of Gary Grave’s Lola Montez, Central Works’ newest production. Is this the Platonic (or maybe not-so-Platonic) soulmate for whom Ludwig has been yearning, prefigured in his verses—or an impulsive femme fatale and wastrel, a self-made mythic figure cutting a swath across Europe in a scenario which could lead to fiscal ruin, at least—or to a revolutionary Gotterdammerung?
In a series of scenes laid out in the Julia Morgan-designed salon in the City Club where Central Works plays, mostly dialogues between the king and his minister or his queen, or between queen and minister, or tete-a-tetes with Lola Montez (especially once they’ve become Lolita and Luis to each other), the play delineates Ludwig’s progress from fascination to rapture to besottedness. His own soliloquies (and sometimes a kind of self-narration) highlight his steps along a road that lead him further and further away from the regal life he’s known, a road that never seems to end, even with disenchantment.
Louis Parnell plays Ludwig with great charm, sometimes courtly, sometimes boyish. But he also shows the paternalism so deep in the king’s soul that he’s oblivious to the possible political effects of his conduct—otherwise, his Romanticism would make him seem almost bourgeois. The focus is on him throughout the play, and Parnell carries it with grace, even when his character’s shoulders begin to sag under the weight of events.
Central Works co-founder Jan Zvaifler makes of Lola an intriguing woman, perhaps in both senses of the word, though it’s left open how much of the rout the faux-Espanola leaves in her wake is considered or just impulsively willful. She’s seen as Ludwig sees her, a hounded free spirit of femininity seeking shelter, an understanding companion of culture and insight, a tempestuous fighter, holding off a mob at her door with a pistol—or as a forbidding idol, offering her foot to her devoted worshipper.
Otherwise, Lola’s character is ambiguously drawn by inference, the minister’s reports on her activities, or the rumors of her activities. Gary Graves calls his play a romance, and there is an intensity to the scenes between Lola and Ludwig, especially with the excellent lighting which seems to silhouette or halo them, devised by Graves, who also directed. But the burden of the tale is expressed in the character sketch of the king, who goes from building monuments to his ambitions for his people, to an intoxicated idealist lover raising shrines to the object of his affections, finally to a spent Romantic, sculpting the air with his disillusioned words.
This is the subtler approach and allows us, for instance, to see Lola miming the Tarantella that made her famous through the eyes of the gently smiling king, already hypnotized, soon to be in over over his head.
It’s difficult to communicate the effect such women as Lola Montez had in their time, the female equivalent of Lord Byron plus his corsair. Maybe a bit more of the showy element of surprise could be shown early on, as later, when Lola appears, triumphantly feminine and loving, in a dragoon’s uniform she’s put on to sneak into an insurrection-plagued Munich, connecting with her kingly admirer.
Like that later idol, Lillie Langtry, an habitue of the Bay Area, Lola was borne up on the winds of the 1848 revolutions, eventually to be deposited, at least for a while, in Grass Valley, where she was mentor to little Lotta Crabtree, whose fountain still stands, a cast-iron anachronism, on Market Street in San Francisco.
Sean Williford, as the gimlet-eyed minister who serves the crown with increasing distaste, and Ludwig’s common sense Queen, who presides with the dignity of the matter of fact, perfectly bookend the pair of lovers with their skepticism becoming alarm.
From performances to costumery, to the conception of this chamber play that attempts to skirt melodrama and the maudlin in depicting both a historical and an intimately emotional situation, Central Works shows once again their high standards as a resident company committed to the collaborative mounting of new works.
Presented by Central Works at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 5 p.m. Sunday through March 25 at the City Club Theatre at
Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave.