Performance diary: Rude Mechs’ DIONYSUS IN ’69, the Wooster Group’s HAMLET, and Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s ROMAN TRAGEDIES

November 20, 2012

Thursday November 8 at New York Live Arts I saw the Austin-based company Rude Mechs’ recreation of Dionysus in ’69, one of the most famous experimental theater pieces of the 1960s. An adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae by the Performance Group under Richard Schechner’s direction, the production became famous for two things: its environmental set (a series of multilevel platforms rather than seating for the audience) and the frequent nudity of the young performers. It was also one of the first shows mounted at the Performing Garage on Wooster Street in Soho, now the headquarters of the Wooster Group, Elizabeth LeCompte’s company, which evolved out of the Performance Group. Rude Mechs has attempted to reconstruct the semi-improvised audience-participatory Dionysus in ’69 by closely imitating the performances filmed back in the day by then-emerging filmmaker Brian De Palma. Which is a very Wooster Group sort of thing to do – the Woosters’ 2004 production Poor Theater resurrected another legendary avant-garde production, the Polish Theater Lab’s Akropolis (directed by the lab’s founder, Jerzy Grotowski), on the basis of snippets seen in a documentary film – although I once heard LeCompte joke about reviving Dionysus in ’69 with its original cast, sagging bodies, bad knees, and all. On Saturday November 10 I found myself back at the Performing Garage to see the Wooster Group’s Hamlet, itself another sort of recreation. The conceit of this production (first performed in 2007) is that the group, directed by LeCompte, is reconstructing John Gielgud’s 1964 Broadway production starring Richard Burton, which was videotaped and shown for two days only in 2000 movie theaters across the U.S.

Never having seen Dionysus in ’69, I was fascinated to experience the Rude Mechs’ version, which was partly scholarly homage to and partly knowing send-up of the earnest and self-conscious edginess of the original production. We’ve now seen lots of nudity onstage and lots of productions where the audience gets to mingle with the performers. (Only a month ago on the same stage, in fact, was Keith Hennessy and Circo Zero’s Turbulence, the legacy of which includes NYLA asking audience members to sign waivers legally indemnifying the theater in case someone falls off a platform and breaks something.) Still, actors stripping naked in close proximity to the audience is never really old-hat. As soon as the show began, the Austin performers all shed their clothes, and the moment felt slightly racy, slightly tense, slightly brave, and slightly sacred – they proceeded to perform a kind of birth ritual, with the men lying face-down, the women straddling them, and the actor playing Dionysus sliding through the tunnel created by the other bodies (see above). The script wanders between clumps of Euripides and self-referential bantering among the actors (who use both their real names and those of the Performance Group actors they’re impersonating). Twice the show instigated rituals involving the audience in an attempt to evoke the Eleusinian revels that The Bacchae references: a drumming-and-dancing circle and an “orgy,” both of which were fairly tentative and lame. (Peering down from my perch on the highest platform like Pentheus spying from his tree, I was tickled to see my old buddy Jim O’Quinn, editor of American Theatre magazine, rolling around on the floor making out with two shirtless actors.)

The original production attempted to conjure contemporary resonances with the Euripidean drama about Apollonian restraint and Dionysian release, the politics of ecstasy, and the dangers of excess in either direction. Dionysus punishes Pentheus for disrespecting him by having him torn to pieces by his mother and her fellow cultists, but the tragedy redounds onto his followers as well, leaving Dionysus looking like a cruel, never-satisfied god. I kept hoping for the Rude Mechs to let us know what was important to them about reviving Dionysus in ’69 right now, and that never really came, which is why it remained an academic stunt for me. The pile of blood-smeared bodies made me think of the Hollywood murders committed by Charles Manson’s drug-addled followers as a deluded commentary on American society and the Vietnam war (those murders took place in 1969, the same year that the Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont turned into a melee where Hell’s Angels killed an audience member – all of which happened after Dionysus in ’69 was already being performed). It also made me think about Abu Ghraib and how American soldiers turned torturing Afghan prisoners into a giddy festival. But the show stuck pretty much to its ‘60s bubble. The performers dutifully maintained their sense of ensemble, and their unbuff natural bodies seemed true to the period. But the original cast included some powerhouse actors, including Joan MacIntosh and Priscilla Smith (and later replacements included Spalding Gray and Liz LeCompte), whom none of these kids matched in intensity. There was a moment that I appreciated for the way it captured theater’s economical transformation of time and space – Cadmus is leading the blind Tiresias to a mountaintop. They simply make one orbit around the small stage area. Tiresias says, “Are we there?” Cadmus says, “We are there.” And we are there.

I blogged about the Wooster Group’s Hamlet when I saw it twice in 2007 (see here).  As usual with the Wooster Group, there’s much to be gained from seeing productions repeatedly. They’re always shifting and morphing, and I see the same things differently. The first showings in New York were at St. Ann’s Warehouse, when the piece was still developing. Later in the year it played at the Public Theater, where it seemed fully complete, plus there was the delicious resonance of its appearing under the auspices of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Now, after five years of periodic national and international tours, LeCompte wants to create a film version of the production (just to add one more layer of tech texture), so the company scheduled a few weeks of performances back at the Performing Garage for the first time since 2005’s Poor Theater.

I walked away from this viewing with a stronger sense of the show’s origin in Scott Shepherd’s wanting to play the role that is every young actor’s Mt. Everest and therefore the production as a fertile and intimate dance between him and LeCompte. Many Wooster Group pieces have been explicitly about recreations, and LeCompte has mastered the fine art of the theatrical mash-up and the remix as well as any of the coolest hiphop DJs. This show began with a more extended verbal introduction by Shepherd and a different program note capitalizing on how the Richard Burton Hamlet production was marketed in 1964 as a new form (“Theatrofilm”) made possible through “the miracle of Electronovision” – Shepherd suggested that the Wooster Group was experimenting with “Reverse Theatrofilm”: turning the filmed document of a live performance back into a live performance (and then, you know, FILMING IT). Throughout the show he calls out cues and instructs the video operator to fast-forward through scenes. You could say he turns Hamlet into Our Town, and he’s the Stage Manager, the narrator, the Master of Ceremonies, roles that Spalding Gray and Ron Vawter played in earlier Wooster Group shows. As Shepherd says, “We’re channeling ghosts.”

What propels the show is a tension among several different intentions: 1) the conceptual intention of recreating the Burton production live, which is the simplest and shallowest task; 2) Shepherd’s effort to both mimic Burton and to create his own visceral performance while sorting out strands from other filmed versions of the play (Kenneth Branagh’s, Michael Almereyda’s starring Ethan Hawke); 3) LeCompte’s contribution, which is to the keep the visual field lively and interesting and beautiful, with little regard for telling Shakespeare’s story or formulating coherent characterizations; and 4) the other actors’ battle to formulate some version of coherent characterizations while simultaneously performing the non-narrative tasks thrust upon them by LeCompte and Shepherd. And these performers (Wooster veterans Kate Valk and Ari Fliakos with a handful of guests) love nothing more than that kind of challenge. Valk gets to play both Gertrude and Ophelia, Fliakos plays Claudius and the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and the gravedigger. (My boyfriend Andy, who’s relatively new to the Wooster Group, said, “I don’t remember there being a nurse in Hamlet…” Which reminded me that I’m so used to seeing a nurse character running around making adjustments, as Koosil-ja does in this version, that I forget it’s LeCompte’s representation of herself, not a character in the actual play.)

As with my first viewing, this time I found the constant shifting set pieces slightly to match camera shots tedious after a while. But I continued to admire the visual field, especially the use of the closeup screen (picking out details such as the crucifix around Claudius’s neck) against the larger background screen (which LeCompte played with even more aggressively and brilliantly in her staging of Tennessee William’s Vieux Carre). And the performances by all the actors have gotten even stronger, freer, and more individual.

Since the performances functioned as a sort of fundraiser to subsidize the film, I bought high-priced “patron tickets,” which gave me “good seats” (in the tiny Garage) and the option to go upstairs and have a glass of champagne with LeCompte at intermission – a hilarious and somewhat awkward invasion of corporate style in the funky setting of the Garage. I did chat with LeCompte briefly about how Hurricane Sandy affected them (they kept rehearsing during daylight, and since their security gate is electronic, someone had to stay on the premises all night to keep intruders out) and met Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival and a fellow big-time Wooster groupie.

The essence of the Wooster Group’s Hamlet is its ingenious, original way of upholding what Shakespeare calls “the purpose of playing, whose end was and is to hold as twere the mirror up to nature…to show…the very age and body of the time.” The time we live in, where more and more of our intellectual and interpersonal experience is mediated by electronic devices, is reflected even more pointedly, using many of the same technological strategies, in Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s ambitious and awe-inspiring Roman Tragedies, which his company Toneelgroep Amsterdam performed three times at BAM’s Next Wave Festival. (I saw the final show on Sunday November 18.)

First mounted in 2007, Roman Tragedies consists of three Shakespeare plays about politics – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra – performed back-to-back, without intermission, running about six hours. The costumes are contemporary business suits, and the set looks like the lobby of some sort of conference hotel – industrial gray carpeting, many sofas, flat screens everywhere. The audience is invited, even encouraged to sit onstage, where there are two bars serving continuously throughout the show, to take pictures with smartphones, and to post on Twitter (#romantragedies); they form a throng through which the actors move, followed by cameramen. A wide screen over the stage becomes a major staging area, with a steady mixture of video being mixed live from various parts of the stage, English subtitles (some but not all of it from Shakespeare), and dramaturgical footnotes delivered on a LED ribbon. The whole thing is timed and counted down as precisely as a live network TV show, and the actors (equipped with body mikes) fight, scream, love, and die their way through text that switches the gender of many characters (Cassius and Octavius Caesar, most notably, are played by women). In Olympic judging terms, the degree of difficulty for this undertaking is 9.9, and van Hove and company walk off with gold medals.

As with the Wooster Group’s Hamlet, the Toneelgroep actors do yeoman’s jobs of meeting the challenges of Shakespeare’s characters while rising to the demands of van Hove’s tech-savvy staging. The fighting that erupts between Coriolanus (a strong performance by Gijs Scholten van Aschat) and the nerdy bureaucrats serving as tribunes looked remarkably like the melee that broke out in the Ukraine parliament earlier this year. The indisputable star of the show is Hans Kesling as Marc Antony; in Julius Caesar, he gives an intensely original, deeply distraught reading of the famous funeral oration that shames Caesar’s killers into exile, but then in Antony and Cleopatra we see him as a road-weary politician-as-movie-star right out of Entourage, living in his own debauched bubble with Cleopatra (Chris Nietvelt, unlikely but inspired casting) and limping back to Rome to undertake a political marriage with Octavius Caesar’s sister that has all the sincerity of a reality-TV show.

The show has numerous points to make about how politics play out in public and in private, some of them bludgeoningly obvious in their irony (the pre- and post-show loop of Bob Dylan crooning “The Times They Are A-Changin’” becomes irritating), some of them subtle and clever, many of them deep and, indeed, timeless. It’s a huge, relentless feast, difficult to digest while you’re watching, and van Hove doesn’t let up even with the curtain call. As the audience is leaving, a long list of questions scrolls across the screen (does freedom exist? is political charisma a virtue? when do principles become unreasonable?) – part study guide to Shakespeare, part talking points for a civic dialogue, extremely pertinent in an election year though just as likely to provoke viewers at the end of this exhausting election year to cry “Enough already!”

One last performance to make notes about, before the moment passes into history: a year ago Elizabeth Swados created La Mama Cantata, her tribute to Ellen Stewart, the legendary off-Off-Broadway pioneer who died in January of 2011 at age 91. The show had a run at La Mama ETC and then toured to Italy, Croatia, and Serbia before returning for a homecoming October 1. The text consisted of stories by and about Stewart – sentimental, inspiring, hilarious, intimate – and the music was some of Swados’s best in years, succinct and dense, well-performed by nine young La Mama babies. Two stories stood out for me, both touching and emblematic of Stewart’s spirit. During a tense press conference at the height of the deadly ethnic war that splintered Yugoslavia, Ellen said, “Look, I remember when you were all one thing – and you all can start loving each other any time you want.” And against a video of burning candles representing the AIDS crisis that devastated the East Village, she is quoted as saying, “How we got through that time, I don’t know.”

One Response to “Performance diary: Rude Mechs’ DIONYSUS IN ’69, the Wooster Group’s HAMLET, and Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s ROMAN TRAGEDIES”

  1. Steve V. Says:

    An admirable description and critical dissection of three challenging theatrical productions. I admire the thoughtfulness and knowledge which you bring to your commentaries.

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