Thanks to the versatility, energy and spot-on acting by star Bella Merlin, Tilly No-Body: Catastrophes of Love, presented by the theater and dance departments, is truly spectacular.
Merlin, UC Davis professor of acting, plays Tilly Wedekind, the wife of famed German playwright Frank Wedekind. Though he was a genius playwright, Frank insisted on referring to Tilly as “Lulu,” a character from one of his plays. Tilly is forced to play various roles to fit her husband’s ideal of her in order to win his affection. The one-woman play documents the inner struggle that Tilly endured to fit into her husband’s twisted psyche.
Walking in to the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, dim lights hang from the stage ceiling, almost resembling night lights because they give off a very serene and calm feel.
A circus theme gives a sense of hilarity and insanity all at once. The stage is set in a circus fashion with various props, such as a huge ball covered in stars, a trunk and an instrument that resembles a lyre. On the floor is a huge blue circle with one large yellow star on it. Upstage or toward the back wall of the theatre, there is an archway that looks aged, almost vintage. In a figurative and theatrical sense, the stage has definitely served as the character’s dwelling for quite some time.
The music is jazzy at times and changes all throughout the play, going from jazzy café to a foreign, perhaps European feel. The music is enjoyable and flows very well with each scene. Sound effects of trains and the lights flickering from time to time indicate that the audience is experiencing what it must have been like inside poor Tilly’s mind.
Merlin’s character of Tilly Wedekind narrates her own insanity well. In the beginning she flashes back to how it all began. She often speaks to people who aren’t there, as if she had many imaginary friends. She communicates the internal and external problems of Tilly very well. One minute it seems as though Tilly is trying to please Frank, and the next minute she’s trying desperately to fight her thoughts about what to do with Frank and her loss of self. Also, her knowledge of the German language is quite impressive. The words she speaks along with her accent sound confident and organic.
At one point during the opening night performance, Merlin stopped and said that she had forgotten her lines. She asked for her line and it was never audible to the audience, but she played it off so well because not too long after, she was back to her acting as Tilly. It was hard to distinguish between her as being serious or acting because Tilly was also an actress. Merlin made it seem as though it was Tilly who had forgotten her lines. Not many actors or actresses in plays can improvise that well.
The costumes show how Tilly was a woman who always had to “say the right thing” and perform for her husband, Frank. She is a clown and a circus ringleader at one point, and her costumes keep changing until she is in a nude-colored body suit, which symbolizes being naked. Every costume stands for something that happened throughout Tilly’s life, and the shedding of those costumes led her on a path to her own individualism once again.
Ultimately, Tilly No-Body asks how a person can survive once her identity has been stripped from her. Tilly’s husband Frank, whom she often impersonates in her conversations, always included Tilly in his award-winning work but never seemed to know how to separate business from pleasure. She never had time for herself, and Tilly’s happiness and well-being were never really addressed until after Frank’s premature death.
Tilly No-Body will give its final performances tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For more information about tickets or the play, go to mondaviarts.org.
LEA MURILLO can be reached at email@example.com.