Performance diary: doubling back

April 25, 2010

April 23 – Andy and I went back to see North Atlantic because you can never absorb everything about a Wooster Group production in one viewing. And indeed, it was very different this time sitting in the next to last row downstairs than it was sitting in the second row center. From the very front the actors were on top of us and overwhelming in their way. From the distance of the back row, the entire frame came into view, including the minimalist video representing the ocean surface behind the stage. When you’ve seen the piece once, you don’t have to focus on whoever’s speaking and you can pay attention to what crazy things the rest of the ensemble is up to. They’re not frozen in place – I just noticed this time the nutty shoeshine business that Doberman and Houlihan were up to as the military officers strode back and forth. I’ve just finished reading The Wooster Group Work Book, Andrew Quick’s incredibly detailed and engrossing study of five productions (from Frank Dell to To You, the Birdie!), in which Liz LeCompte talks about the paces she puts the actors through, having them work very hard to make something happen in the moment rather than looking overly rehearsed. So I was very aware of how, for instance, Scott Shepherd (below) managed the dead space around the leaden jokes he tells as Colonel Lud.

Almost all the notes I took were crazy little Jim Strahs lines I hadn’t necessarily heard before, such as:

— Waddya got for the layman, something that lights up and talks back?

— Ya gotta make ‘em squirt.
— I can’t do that. What does that make me, a soft-shell crab?

— You’re so deformed you could have been born in a can of Pepsi.

— Go ahead, wet your stick.

— Slithers??? Jumps!

— You’ll be shitting shoelaces for the next 35 years.

— Who’s he calling Schwitzpuppen?

The sound score is always subtly changing, throughout the show and from one performance to another, and you could spend the entire time just tracking that. I still giggle every time I think about the scene where the men down front are singing the dirty ditty “There’s a Place in France” (“where the women wear no pants”) while upstage the women are sliding on the tilted stage floor faintly mashing it up with snatches of Chic’s “Le Freak” (“awwww freak out!”). I spoke to Liz briefly after the show and that’s what she was fixated on – she said they’d only just solved some of the acoustic bugaboos in the theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center that North Atlantic has inaugurated. She also said the group is leaving soon to perform in Romania – “Don’t ask!”

Andy and I happily debriefed about the show walking up Ninth Avenue afterwards until we found ourselves stopping for dinner at a relatively new place, Terrazza Toscana, at 50th Street, where sat outdoors on the roof and had a delicious meal: spaghetti with lamb stew for him, orecchiette with pancetta and haricots verts for me, with a lovely bottle of copertino.

April 24 – Revisiting American Idiot: for all my grumbling about how the songs in the show  blurred together after a while, I notice that after listening to the original cast album now I can’t get several of them out of my head (“Are We the Waiting,” “Know Your Enemy,” “21 Guns”). I guess if I knew the Green Day album in advance – like apparently Theatermania’s Dan Bacalzo did – I would have been squealing with delight throughout the show at what Michael Mayer did with each song. That’s what I would probably do if someone made a stage show out of, say, Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album. Not a bad idea….paging Michael Mayer!

3 Responses to “Performance diary: doubling back”

  1. Steve V. Says:

    I’d be interested in reading the opinions of anyone who saw The Wooster Group’s production entitled To You, the Birdie!

    It’s a version of Racine’s Phèdre using a translation by the late Paul Schmidt. I greatly admire Schmidt’s work as a translator of Chekhov and his knowledge of French was excellent (see his translations of Rimbaud), but I found his translation of Phèdre to be unreadable.

    No doubt it helps if you don’t know and love the original French,
    as I do. Imagine a translator of Hamlet who rendered, in his or her language, the opening of the famous soliloquy as “Should I live or die? No idea.” That’s something like what Schmidt did with Racine’s rigorous and ravishing verse play.

    But what I’m most curious about was how this text was performed on stage. I’ve heard that Phaedra was carried about like an invalid, or a mannequin, and that she was given an enema on the stage (simulated, I hope). Poor Racine, in his grave, would be spinning like a top.

    Still, I don’t like to judge on the basis of a few sketchy reports.
    If anyone who reads this saw the production, even if you don’t know
    the original, or only know it from other translations like Lowell’s, Wilber’s, Harrison’s or Hughes’ (we have such a wealth of good ones in English!), I’d be very interested in hearing your opinions of the production.

    • dshewey Says:

      Steve — yes, of course the Racine purists howled at To You, the Birdie! because that’s what purists do. The production was quite dense and crazy, even more than most Wooster Group pieces — it took place on a badminton court, with heightened sound like a pinball machine, and with a lot of displacement of sound and visuals, in a strange adaptation of Japanese theater. For instance, Phedre’s lines were spoken by Scott Shepherd sitting at the back of the stage and lip-synched by Kate Valk playing Phedre down front. One could say what does this have to do with Racine’s intentions…but Liz LeCompte’s theater pieces incorporating classic plays are not at all interested in preserving the author’s intentions or illustrating the text for students. They are very very sophisticated artistic RESPONSES to the plays that basically assume that audiences are familiar with the original and are available for a dense, hypermediated dialogue with it. To You, the Birdie! has a lot to do with the body, with desire, with shame and longing and despair expressed through the body (the exquisite all-but-naked body of Ari Fliakos, for instance). Not to psychoanalyze the piece too much, but Wooster Group work always has intensely personal reverberations — Liz was partnered for many years with a somewhat younger man, Willem Dafoe, and this was the last piece they did together before Willem left her for another woman. So the Phedre/Hippolytus drama couldn’t help but be in the air. In Quick’s book, The Wooster Group Work Book, LeCompte talks about almost giving up in the midst of making To You, the Birdie! and says that she initially undertook it as a tribute to the late Paul Schmidt (who was closely associated with the group). Paul died of AIDS, as did the beloved Ron Vawter. As much as anything, Wooster Group work is about the group and about making theater — much of the production fixated on the roles of monarch and servant, the actors following instructions delivered live through in-ear devices and watching on video monitors hidden from the audience performances by Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, which the Wooster Group actors undertook to echo with their own movements…the documentation in Quick’s book is fascinating. OK, how’s that for a long-winded response?

  2. Steve V. Says:

    Don – I was very pleased to read your response. You’ve done just what I was hoping someone would do (though I’d still welcome other viewers’ impressions), by going into detail not only about what the audience saw and heard during To You, the Birdie!, but the ideas and personal insights that led to the this remarkable production.

    Your explanation gave me a far greater respect for the process and the intentions behind what, from some reports, sounded like a willfully aberrant distortion of Racine’s work. I may as well mention right here that Racine’s Phèdre is my favorite play in the world, hence my previous inclination to view the Wooster Group’s version with disdain, sight unseen.

    I think that it might have been better (at least for us so-called “purists”) if To You, the Birdie! had been labeled as a new version of the Greek myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus, like Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love, with no acknowlegement of its Racinian predecessor. Racine’s was only one such version, anyway, and far from the first. He drew upon plays by Euripides (at lot) and Seneca (a little), but his Phèdre was not a translation of either play, and was all the better for it.

    I really wish I knew what Schmidt thought he was up to, in this his last translation before he died of AIDS, a fact which gives special poignancy to his rendering of the famous couplet, “Ce ne plus une ardeur dans mes veines cachée/C’est Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée” as “I had Venus like a virus in my veins.”

    I like the directness of that line in his translation, and it has the force, if not the elegance of Racine. But mostly his dialogue is more like, “Suppose your mother hadn’t overcome her virginal scruples — where would you be?” (That’s an actual quote.) Not quite colloquial enough, yet not quite poetic enough either, I think, for a work on this subject.

    Still, I suppose I should reread his work and this time force myself to get through it. Perhaps, like your comments on the Wooster Group’s To You, the Birdie!, a new reading will succeed in giving me a better understanding and at least a grudging respect for this bizarre and challenging work.

    (Whew! Talk about long-winded replies!)

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