Posts Tagged ‘the wooster group’

Culture Vulture: Caryl Churchill, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Wallace Shawn, the Wooster Group, James Baldwin, and Leonard Cohen

March 1, 2017

I love artists who give themselves permission to throw out the rule book for their given form, who take for themselves the freedom to do whatever they want.

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Caryl Churchill is one of those. No two of her plays have much in common except in their rich, dense language and their wayward inventiveness. Escaped Alone, which began life at the Royal Court Theater in London and just finished a brief run at the BAM Harvey, runs 50 minutes long and takes place in a neo-realist backyard, where four women who are neighbors chatter about nothing and everything, and some kind of liminal space (two vertical planes defined by red LED rectangles), from which one of the women describes the aftermath of a global catastrophe. Into this framework Churchill pours torrents of thoughts, fantasies, worries, political commentary, and poetic musing. (My favorite: reminiscing about looking at clouds from an airplane window, one character wonders what Julius Caesar would have thought about this sight.) James Macdonald, Churchill’s director-of-choice these days, does a stellar job, as do his four strong performers (above: Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham, and June Watson).

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If anything, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is even more outrageous than Caryl Churchill in the glee he takes dismantling theatrical conventions. I wouldn’t say Everybody (currently onstage at Signature Theatre) is a great play, but it’s fascinating, entertaining, erudite, and original, and it’s nothing like any of his previous plays (the ones I’ve seen were An Octoroon, Gloria, and War). Adapted from the 15th century morality play Everyman, the show doesn’t do anything in a normal or predictable way, starting with the announcement at the top of the show to turn off cel phones, etc. Four actors play set characters; five others participate in a golf-ball lottery that tells them what roles they will play at the performance you see, one of them being the title role. So five actors have to pretty much memorize the entire play and be able to roll with their assignments on a moment’s notice. A prompter stands by, and Lakisha Michelle May – my Everybody – did have to call “line” 5 or 6 times but she did so without breaking stride. The abundant cleverness never paid off in earth-shattering insight, but there’s a dance sequence that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Lila Neugebauer staged the hell out of the show, with a good game cast that also included Jocelyn Bioh, Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, the adorable Marylouise Burke (as, hello, Death), Louis Cancelmi, 9-year-old Lilyana Tiare Cornell, revered veteran David Patrick Kelly, and – as Love – the lovely Chris Perfetti.

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Then there’s Wally Shawn, who always goes his own way. His plays are not so different from each other but they’re very different from other people’s plays, with their long monologues, unreliable narrators, language and actions that emerge from the shadowy depths of the human unconscious. Evening at the Talk House (currently at the New Group, in its home at the Pershing Square Signature Center) bears a distinct family resemblance to The Designated Mourner, representing a genre we might call Theater of Anxiety. After decades of close collaboration with Andre Gregory, Shawn has found another exceptional collaborator in Scott Elliott, who does an incredible job creating moment-by-moment theatrical life out of what could be a quite stagnant, talky script. Like the best plays reflecting the world we live in, it’s nobody’s idea of a fun night at the theater, but truthful art is important to me, even when it’s dark and upsetting. I was impressed to watch the entire cast work quite outside where they’re comfortably known, from Matthew Broderick in the central role of Robert (with echoes of his performance in the film of Marie and Bruce) to John Epperson (Lypsinka in mufti) to Claudia Shear to Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker to Shawn himself and his longtime compatriot Larry Pine. Annapurna Sriram was the only cast member new to me, strong and indelible in a cast of legends.

Not to mention the Wooster Group and its fearless director, Elizabeth LeCompte, masters of creating a theatrical universe with its own eccentric, exciting rulebook. I saw The Town Hall Affair when they first showed it last year, but as I’ve learned through long exposure to this exceptional company it always pays to go back and see the work again, as I did this week, because it’s so layered you can’t possibly take in everything at once. The first time you’re just absorbing the central narrative, which always has something bouncing off of something else – in this case, the Wooster Group recreating a 1972 Theatre of Ideas symposium organized so that Norman Mailer could “discuss” women’s liberation with Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling, which they bounce off of Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker’s documentary film Town Bloody Hall, with scenes from Mailer’s own weird little home movie Maidstone lurking in the background and excerpts from Johnson’s Lesbian Nation framing the whole thing.

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The Wooster troupers are in fine form, with Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos splitting the role of Mailer, Maura Tierney returning as guest artist to play Greer, and Greg Mehrten manifesting magnificently as Trilling. But Kate Valk dominates the stage playing Johnston as a goofy intellectual free spirit in a silky long red wig. Every detail of the production has gotten deeper, richer, more precise, funnier and yet more pointed and profound in the year they’ve been honing the piece. Return visits allow you to tune into the intricate layers of sonic and visual material that LeCompte packs into the composition – the jazz piano (is it Cecil Taylor?) that underscores Valk/Johnson’s opening monologue, Shepherd double-tracking the women’s speeches in barely audible whispering into a mic. Second time around I connected Valk’s spectacular inhabiting of Johnston’s delivery of her stream-of-consciousness remarks with her incredible facility with Gertrude Stein’s text in the Wooster Group’s 1997 House/Lights. And Mailer’s insanely smug, self-amused, nonsensical spewing looks very different considering who’s in the White House now. Speaking of which, when Johnston mentions “White House briefing,” Valk charges forward with her podium, in a hilarious split-second reference to Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live. Oh, the layers, the layers, how I do love them….

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I also saw a couple of excellent documentaries about equally titanic sui generis artists. I Am Not Your Negro is both an incredibly stylish film and a powerful portrait of James Baldwin, whose incisive and deeply personal writing and far-seeing commentary has increased in value exponentially since his death in 1987. Director Raoul Peck not only selects astonishing swaths of riveting footage of Baldwin speaking – casually, publicly, oratorically, fiercely, studiedly, always eloquent, even in silence – but also surrounds it with incredibly fresh, witty, devastating samples of pop culture and newsreel coverage of Baldwin’s time and our own.

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Almost equally riveting are the sentences that pour out of Leonard Cohen’s mouth in Tony Palmer’s long-lost, recently restored documentary Bird on a Wire, for which the director followed the singer-songwriter around Europe during a month-long tour of Europe in 1972. This is no slick, smooth greatest hits compilation. The tour constantly teeters on the verge of disaster, with horrible sound problems, cranky audiences, and increasingly frayed nerves among all the musicians, culminating at a final concert in Jerusalem that ends abruptly halfway through the set with Cohen and crew backstage in tears. Yet the music Palmer captures is often ethereally beautiful, with often rough and improvised variations on recorded versions of the songs. And time after time, we see Cohen speaking to the audience during shows or being asked the most inane questions by idiotic interviewed, and he comes out with all manner of direct, soulful, deep, unpredictable statements. You can watch it on Vimeo here, and I hope you will.

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.

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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.)

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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?

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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.

Theater review: the Wooster Group’s VIEUX CARRE

March 10, 2011

My review of the Wooster Group’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre has just been posted on CultureVulture.net. Check it out here and let me know what you think. The show runs through Sunday at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and I highly recommend it.

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!


From the deep archives: Jim Strahs and NORTH ATLANTIC

March 21, 2010


Inspired by seeing the revival of NORTH ATLANTIC, I rooted around in the long list of articles I’ve published about the Wooster Group over the year and posted online a 1982 Village Voice feature on Jim Strahs (above, several years before he wrote NORTH ATLANTIC for the Group) and a 1989 feature for 7 Days about the original production (below).

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