… two great productions … (lucky playwright!)
In the Wooster Group’s visceral production of Williams’ Vieux Carre, a writer/narrator allows his memory to transport him to the past, and to a run-down boarding house in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the 1930’s. Why this place at this time? Because it’s the site of his coming of age recognition of his homosexual nature. But he’s not alone here: the place is crowded with other tenants who, in their different ways, take part in the drama of his self-recognition. His memory brings to life their passions and agonies as well as his own. There are two proud, old southern ladies who scavenge garbage pails to stay alive, the “rapacious”, tubercular old artist coughing into his handkerchief, the young woman from the north whose particular pain we learn of late in the play, her stud man, the landlady, the maid, and the young drifter who becomes the writer’s ticket to a free life.
This profound presentation of Williams’ play breaks the bounds of conventional theater as the Wooster Group regularly does, which here means letting us experience directly inner life, uncovering the compellingly hard-to-take. The messy business of existence passes across this cluttered stage, the complexity heightened by voices heard with and without microphone, direct and recorded, and the visual variety of projected still and moving, whole and fractured, images. Isn’t that how we experience existence? Never have the Wooster Group’s technically fed disjunctions been more powerful. Still, this fractured, gutsy experience of existence is only one part of the story. We also try to give it all a shape.
In 2009 the Pearl Theatre presented an excellent production of Vieux Carre — so good it almost seemed definitive, as in what more, or what else could one find in it? (for description and review click here). Now we have this fine production by the Wooster Group. What’s the difference? The Wooster Group’s production strips away surface to get at truth, revealing messy, anarchic, bloody, disordered insides, both physical and psychological. It’s an analog of experience itself. Calmer and less in-your-face, the production by the Pearl Theatre was a meditation on experience: it took you on a journey of deepening understanding and, at the end, brought you back to the surface of a still intact existence. By the end of the Wooster Group’s performance, existence is still pretty ripped up (and the stage is a total mess!).
There was nothing “safe” in the sense of timid or equivocating about the Pearl Theatre’s production: it was strong and true to Williams. Both productions, for example, stage the astonishing scene in which the sick, old, ugly artist seduces the beautiful young writer, while disgustingly coughing blood into his tired handkerchief. But the handkerchief is bloodier — and grown to banner-size — as the Wooster Group plays it. In the Pearl’s play, sickness and death compete on equal terms with elegiac allure. There’s even a softening touch of romance. As the Wooster Group does it, lust and death are equally gross, and forget about romance. The Pearl’s seducer was normal looking for a sick old man, so one could sense in him something of the beautiful, hope filled young man he’d once been. The Wooster Group’s old man wears a priapic false phallus like a satyr in an ancient comedy; the scene is played so repulsively people laugh.
The Wooster Group assigns its actors multiple rolls, obviously and purposefully to short circuit any tendency towards sentimental attachment for the characters. The great Kate Valk, for instance, a central performer in all Wooster Group productions, plays the tough landlady and the frail, high class girl from the north (though with too much of a southern accent a la Blanche Dubois, I thought). In the slow unfolding of the Pearl Theatre’s Vieux Carre, the audience had the benefits of consistency of presentation, and of evolving time that nourish involvement and empathy with the characters.
The unflinching approach of the Wooster Group brings you face to face with deconstructed truth. Pearl’s swung well into brutal reality but left you with an intact vision. That’s a truth, too, because it’s what, in fact, we do with raw violence of experience.
The Wooster Group’s Vieux Carre plays at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on West 37th Street in NYC through March 13.
Your analysis and comparison of these two iterations of Vieux Carre adds to the intellectual appreciation and emotional understanding of this classic play. We are indeed fortunate to have such competent theater groups in New York and such an constructively insightful critic.