Posts Tagged ‘elizabeth lecompte’

Performance diary: the Wooster Group’s CRY, TROJANS!

January 31, 2014

This is my 1000th blog post on Another Eye Opens, and to celebrate the occasion I couldn’t imagine a better subject than ruminating about the Wooster Group, my favorite theatermakers in the world, whom I’ve written about for the Village Voice, the New York Times, 7 Days, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

I don’t envy daily newspaper reviewers faced with the task of writing a review of the Wooster Group’s Cry, Trojans! at short notice after one viewing. The production is so dense, crazy, complicated, and chaotic that even I had a hard time grasping what I was looking at, and I’ve been watching their work for more than 30 years. (I’ve gotten so accustomed to text-speak that I had to fight the urge to add “smiley-face” after that sentence.)

Cry, Trojans! is the Woosters’ adaptation of Troilus and Cressida, the epitome of what scholars talk about when they talk about Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” A literary mash-up of episodes from The Iliad with a more obscure legendary romance, T&C wanders between the two sides of the Trojan War, loosely tracking three violated love relationships – the Greek queen Helen, the lover of Paris stolen from her husband Menelaus; Cressida, the lover of Troilus traded away by her father Calchas in a prisoner exchange to Diomedes; and Patroclus, the lover of Achilles slain in battle by Hector. War is messy, love is messy, and boy, do Liz LeCompte and the Wooster Group love nothing more than a big mess.

In one of the nuttier schemes in recent theater production, the Royal Shakespeare Company was commissioned to mount a production of Troilus and Cressida for the World Shakespeare Festival, which was part of the London 2012 Olympic Arts Festival. The RSC’s Rupert Goold had the insane/inspired idea to invite the Wooster Group to collaborate with the RSC on a production in which the Woosters would play the Trojans, the Brits would play the Greeks, and they would rehearse separately until two weeks before opening. What could possibly go wrong?

Early on, Goold bowed out as director of the Brits. His replacement, Mark Ravenhill, was better known as a playwright, actor, and Guardian columnist than as a director. One of England’s prominent contemporary gay playwrights and writer-in-residence at the RSC, Ravenhill will probably forever be best-known for having the balls to name a play Shopping and Fucking. (If only the script had more to remember it by than the title.) His conception for the Greeks in Troilus and Cressida was to accent the gayness; his Achilles and Patroclus lounged around in spa towels, and their slave Thersites was a drag queen in a wheelchair, while Ajax was played by an actor in a muscle-suit looking like a WWF head-banger.

T and C i T&C london 2

Meanwhile, LeCompte and the Americans went Native, dressing the Trojans in Hollywood- Injun attire, complete with teepees and jet-black wigs, with costumes and props provided by Dutch designer Folkert de Jong, whose specialty is postmodern tribalism that looks like handmade designer-grunge replicas of dumpster-diving treasures. (You can see a feature story on the costumes in the New York Times T Magazine online here.)

trojans-murphy-slide-P4G7-jumbo TroilusCressida_281561k
The title characters were played by Wooster superstar Scott Shepherd and guest artist Marin Ireland (above, ubiquitous Off-Broadway actress and, not incidentally, Shepherd’s girlfriend), and other group members and associates rounded out the cast (including Ari Fliakos, Greg Mehrten, and Gary Wilmes, phenomenally skilled and brave performers all). Of course, the Woosters also showed up with their full armamentarium of media technology: the radio mikes, the in-ear devices, the live mixing decks, and the multiple video monitors screening scenes from two feature films about Native Americans (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and Smoke Signals) and Splendor in the Grass (because…young love).

When the show opened at Stratford-on-Avon, the critical consensus was: WTF!?!?! A subsequent run in London fanned the flames of controversy, while cultivating a cadre of viewers willing to look at what was actually going on onstage.

That’s just the British chapter. A year and change later, the Woosters set to work adapting the show for presentation at their New York home base, the Performing Garage in Soho, sans the British cast. Kate Valk, the group’s other resident superstar, replaced Ireland, Suzzy Roche (who’s appeared in two previous WG productions) took over the role of Cassandra, and the guys in the group started playing the Greeks, in weird little black leather masks (below), as well as the Trojans. The production is in previews through February 15; after that it travels to Los Angeles for a week. Ultimately, the plan is to open the show officially sometime next season at one of the bigger venues the Wooster Group plays in NYC (St. Ann’s, Baryshnikov Arts Center, or the Public Theater).

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I saw the show Saturday January 11 for the first time; when I went back two weeks later, Sunday January 26, I was surprised how substantially it had changed – I shouldn’t have been, because the group works meticulously over long periods of time. I somehow thought because they’d performed the show in London it was pretty much done, but really this is a complete reconception that LeCompte said, in an after-show talk, is still only two-thirds finished.

I won’t say a lot about the performance because it’s so clearly in flux. I will say that the notion of having the Wooster Group actors play the Trojan characters in Troilus and Cressida as Native Americans is a quintessential Liz LeCompte move. On the surface it seems corny, crude, outrageous, provocative, silly to the point of ridiculous – and then it reveals itself to be both conceptually sophisticated and rooted in a deep and astute textual analysis. After all, Shakespeare’s bizarre mishmash of a play was written for British actors to speak Elizabethan poetry while playing characters from The Iliad, an elaborate recollection of scenes from Greek history that may or may not have happened by a poet who may or may not have existed (some speculate that “Homer” refers to a consortium of ancient storytellers). The Woosters, who are obsessed with production concepts that have to do with re-enactments, landed on the idea of being as American as possible in their encounter with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and what’s more American than the indigenous people?

fast runner
For years, part of the Wooster Group’s method has been for the actors to be watching scenes from movies on video monitors throughout the performance and meticulously imitating the gestures and movements they see, rather than blocking a play according to the script’s directions. Usually the audience isn’t privy to what the actors are watching, but in this production – since it’s performed on a thrust stage, with the audience on three sides – the screens are more prominent and visible to everyone. A big part of watching Cry, Trojans! is puzzling out the connection between what we’re seeing onstage and these film excerpts on the video monitors. It helps to recognize what the movies are. The Fast Runner (above) made a splash among cinephiles when it came out in 2001 as “the Inuit film,” the first movie made by an Inuit director and actors speaking their native tongue. It is itself an adaptation of an ancient epic, a corollary to The Iliad. And Smoke Signals was a 1998 indie film based on the beautiful quirky short fiction of Native American writer Sherman Alexie.

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This is why I love the Wooster Group more than any other theater company in the world: their ability to mash up culture (the Bard meets Sherman Alexie meets cutting-edge Dutch designer meets Suzzy Roche) in a way that’s smart, funny, and deep and that forms a vibrant picture of the world I live in.

My life as a Culture Vulture: week of February 19

February 25, 2012

Busy fun culture week.

SUNDAY: I got to see the penultimate performance at the Encores! series of Merrily We Roll Along at City Center. It’s always been one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, if not my very favorite. This is the adaptation of a Kaufman and Hart show-biz drama that moves backwards in time, starting from the present when the central character, Frank Shepard, is a super-successful Broadway composer who’s sold out to Hollywood and then moving back through the pivotal experiences and relationships that made him who he is.  I’m not even that much of a musical theater geek, but I saw the short-lived original Hal Prince production in 1981 and loved the show and the music and the emotional sweep of the show, despite the ridiculous costumes and production design. As with many Sondheim shows, it was impeccably recorded (by Thomas Z. Shepard for RCA Records), and it’s through the original cast recording that many, many people grew to love this show. It’s great theater for the ear and a fantastic score. To my taste, there’s never been a better Charley Kringas than Lonny Price (especially his version of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”), and I’m very partial to Ann Morrison’s performance as Mary (for me, she kinda owns “Like It Was” and “Now You Know”) — plus Jason Alexander’s finest moment, as Joe.


I’d go see any production of Merrily that comes down the pike. I did see the pretty mediocre York Theater production (directed by Susan H. Schulman, starring Malcolm Gets) but the gold standard has always been James Lapine’s staging at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985 with John Rubinstein, Chip Zien, and Heather McRae. Encores! tapped Lapine to mount the concert version at City Center, and he did a great job — not quite obliterating my fondness for the La Jolla version, partly because the full staging made that production more forceful. But it was pretty damn good at City Center. The show is such a moving, intense, bittersweet, super-ambivalent slice of adult wisdom — rueful in suggesting that we inevitably lose significant shards of our integrity as we age, upsetting in its honesty about the light and shadow aspects of friendship,  and yet inspiring in the way it captures youthful idealism. It’s a deep show, and it’s hard not to be moved to tears by the kids at the end claiming “It’s our time!” At City Center, I couldn’t help thinking that today’s versions of the twentysomething Frank and Charlie and Mary would be Occupying Wall Street.


Lovely performances by Celia Keenan-Bolger and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Mary and Charley, but for me two other performances by non-hyphenated actors were revelations: Colin Donnell as Frank and Elizabeth Stanley as Gussie (above). Donnell is so good I may have to go see Anything Goes, and Stanley is definitely star material — she got to do the new number that Sondheim cooked up for this production, the act-two opener that gives us an excerpt of Frank and Charlie’s hit show, Musical Husbands.

MONDAY: I’m a big fan of Edmund White and will read anything he writes. I enjoyed Jack Holmes and His Friend a lot while reading it, so I was surprised to feel a little letdown by the very ending. It seemed weightless and inconsequential. But the form of the novel, which centers on a gay man who is in love with a straight friend, is somewhat experimental, so it works on you after the fact. The four sections alternate between third-person omniscient narrative and first-person narrative by Will, the straight guy — I think this is White’s first attempt to write in the voice of a heterosexual male, and at times it seems strained and somewhat cliched, though I can’t be sure if that’s intentional on White’s part. Ultimately, it’s an intriguingly detailed, characteristically sexually explicit take on how the advent of AIDS affected the kind of straight people who were just starting to explore the sexual freedom gay men claimed for themselves in the 1960s and ’70s.


I was alarmed to read an interview with White in the Gay and Lesbian Review, where he mentioned that he recently had a stroke. Nevertheless, his writing here is strong, and many passages dazzled me and made me laugh, such as this description of two women working as personnel directors for a literary magazine: “They’d been sitting in the same small office, with its dust and snake plants, for thirty years. Every surface was covered with files. They wore hats perched incongruously above their wide, bloated faces, like flowers taped to livestock.” And: “He’d never thought of his grandmother as a woman before — more as a matron with a firm, molded mono-bosom and a diamond brooch and a low, Southern twang than as a woman with soft white breasts like warm dachshunds in constant motion, dogs with huge brown noses.”

TUESDAY: Anthology Film Archives in the East Village is running a fantastic and comprehensive film series devoted to the Wooster Group, including a 10-program retrospective of film and video documentation of their glorious stage productions. When I ran into Cynthia Hedstrom at St. Ann’s Warehouse last week, she urged me to show up for the video reconstruction of Rumstick Road, and I’m so glad I did. The middle piece of the group’s Three Places in Rhode Island, Rumstick Road was really the work that launched Spalding Gray’s career as a solo performer and storyteller. At the center of the piece is Spalding telling the story of his mother’s suicide, using tape-recorded recollections by his father, his grandmother, and a psychiatrist who’d treated his mother. And Elizabeth LeCompte was just beginning to hone the tools that have made her the legendary genius director she is: having the actors lip-synch the recordings and developing with her three outrageously talented and fearless performers (Gray, Ron Vawter, and Libby Howe) and kindred-spirit techies (Jim Clayburgh and Bruce Porter) a variety of physical actions and visual images to complement the verbal material.


The piece was first shown in 1977 and performed periodically through 1980 (I saw it, weirdly enough, when it had a brief uptown run at the American Place Theater), back when the Wooster Group was called The Performance Group and were virtually unknown and barely scraping by. Various bits and pieces of Rumstick Road were captured on video, film, and audiotape but never a complete documented performance. Recently, LeCompte and filmmaker Ken Kobland sat down with the hodgepodge of chunks and ingeniously reconstructed the entire performance. It’s very rough and sometimes crude, which is of course perfect for LeCompte’s aesthetic. And looking back at the piece now, it’s astonishing to see how original and strong a work of art it is. The reconstruction includes a number of close-up shots that enhance the viewing experience (I hadn’t retained a clear memory of the crazy moment when Ron Vawter, wearing a latex old-lady mask, examined Spalding’s mouth at length, pulling out and stroking his tongue with his fingers). It was thrilling to re-experience the show, but also sad recalling those wonderful young actors lost to AIDS (Vawter), suicide (Gray), and mental illness (Howe).

WEDNESDAY: Rehearsal with Gamelan Kusuma Laras. I’m excited that I’m slowly, slowly starting to learn how to play a new instrument, bonang panerus (below), with lots of help and coaching from more experienced players (thanks, Carla! thanks, Dylan! thanks, Oki!).


THURSDAY: I finally finished reading Electric Eden, British music critic Rob Young’s dense, ambitious, obsessive, and impressive history of a certain stripe of British pop-folk music. He originally set out to focus on a specific set of quirky, seminal bands and performers who bridged the gap between traditional English folk music, rock and roll, and post-Dylan singer-songwriters — the likes of Fairport Convention (whose members included Richard Thompson and the late Sandy Denny), the Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Steeleye Span, Donovan, and Nick Drake. But his research led him to deep thinking about the British history and culture and geography that music emerged from, and he also found himself tracking the artists forward through the tributaries of psychedelia, art-rock, glam-rock, punk, and other sound experiments. It’s one of the most impressive, intelligent books about pop music I’ve ever encountered, extremely well-written, scrupulously factual, and free of cheap, stupid generalizations.

I learned lots about music that was near and dear to me as a precocious teenage listener, and he writes about tons of artists I’ve never heard of before who sound fascinating (Mighty Baby? Comus?). His discography alone provides a graduate-level study guide to some beautiful and curious musical byroads. I never knew, for instance, that the Beatles created a 15-minute sound collage called “Carnival of Light” around the time of Sgt. Pepper! Here’s his succinct description of the tipping point, when the hippie-dippy pastoral rootsiness of acts like the Incredible String Band began to be eclipsed by the dark urban edginess of David Bowie: “If folk, folk-rock and its tributaries were, however subconsciously, believed to spring from collective, stable racial memory, glam tipped music into a wilderness of masks and mirrors, divided selves refracted through a succession of grotesque invented facades.”

FRIDAY: I was asked to give a nine-minute talk introducing the Wim Wenders/Sam Shepard film Paris, Texas at the Rubin Museum‘s Cabaret Cinema series, which prompted me to read this informative interview with Wenders and also gave me the delightful opportunity to watch the film again. I hadn’t seen it since it opened at the New York Film Festival in 1984. Man, Robby Muller’s cinematography is spectacular, starting from the opening shots of Harry Dean Stanton striding with absurd purposefulness through the lunar landscape of the Grand Canyon. And Ry Cooder’s music has never been more beautifully matached with a film. I will admit that I slipped out early, so as to avoid watching Nastassia Kinski, whose performance I recall as acutely embarrassing. The Rubin is a great museum, the people who work there are super-nice, the place was packed and buzzing on a Friday night, and I look forward to using my gift membership to view their always-engrossing exhibitions, starting with a show I know Andy will want to see: “Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics.”

Quote of the day: ACTING

April 27, 2010

ACTING

I think the problem for a lot of stage acting is that it’s so often concerned with the actor’s desire to make sure that he or she is connecting with the audience. So, there’s always this little thing, this patronizing thing, that they are always one little second ahead of the audience telling them what they should feel and what is coming next. I don’t want performers to be responsible for this. This should be the responsibility of the piece as whole, it’s not down to individual performers.

So the ego of the performer has to push to the back?

In some ways, in other ways it’s pure narcissism. you have to have a certain kind of narcissism because you have to trust that the audience will watch whatever you do. A lot of actors have egoism, but they don’t have this kind of narcissism. Maybe the egoism comes from film, where the actors always want to make sure that they are doing something important — this is so different from the narcissist, who simply doesn’t care.

— Elizabeth LeCompte, interviewed by Andrew Quick in The Wooster Group Work Book

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!


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