Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Wooster Group

Review | Cry, Trojans (Troilus & Cressida) | Text by William Shakespeare | Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte | Performing Garage | Wooster Group

… not nice guys …

Diving into disjunction, deconstructing anything and everything, and squeezing ambiguities out of certainties, The Wooster Group has always stayed theatrically steps ahead.  In staging this play they seem to have taken on their ultimate challenge because Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is already a work of deconstruction … a few centuries avant la lettre.  So what’s left for The Wooster Group to do?  Exuberantly, they add their own disjunctions and ambiguities to Troilus and Cressida for a stimulating take on Shakespeare’s play based on Homer’s epic about that war between the Greeks and Trojans.

The play’s set conjures not ancient Troy but a derelict American Indian camp with a shabby teepee.  A video screen, continuing the set, shows smoke rising from the top of the teepee, setting up the game of competing realities, while at the same time enlarging the meaning of the action.

We’re on the Trojan side of things where proud, graceful and scraggly warriors return from battle, bare-chested, in motley Indian leather.  They cross the stage one-by-one in their individual versions of Indian-like dance steps as the gross sensualist, Pandarus, announces their legendary names: Aeneas, Paris, Hektor … Pandarus, like all the Trojans, speaks with an Irish brogue.  Each warrior wears a quiver that looks like it’s seen better days, with a mask at the top — Janus faced  to their own — a head with the features of an ancient Greek sculpture, deteriorating, empty.

So much for idealized, mythic heroes.   So much for the gods, too — the wobbly, empty heads recall that of Venus, a patron god of Troy and mother of Aeneas.

On the love front, Troilus, one of King Priam’s many sons, is in love with Cressida, a match enabled by Pandarus  (who’s lent his name to enabling sexual match-ups).  After a night of love, word comes that Cressida is to be passed over to the Greeks in a prisoner exchange — a cruel deal managed by her own father, who’s a traitor as well, having defected to the Greeks.  Nice guy.  Troilus defends Cressida — flaccidly — she’s handed over to the other tribe, the Greeks, who speak in English accents in contrast to the Irish Trojans.

The Greeks pass Cressida around like a toy, kissing her, she looks a little staggered but adapts readily and fast ends up in bed with Diomedes, whom she’s willing enough to love, surrendering to him without much fight her love token from weak-willed Troilus.

All the characters are one way or another weak willed and prone to betrayal, with the possible exception of Hektor, but they are stirred by thoughts of glory.  At a Council Meeting-Parliament Meeting–Pow Wow, the Trojans consider abandoning Helen to the Greeks in order to end the war but, in spite of an attempt at reasoning from Hektor and warnings from prophetic Cassandra, they opt in favor of keeping Helen and continuing the war which — in any construction — is a well-known really bad decision.

Video monitors project cuts from a movie about Eskimos, and others from a Hollywood film simultaneously with parallel action on stage, whether  arguments, violence, war councils, domestic tenderness.  The monitors will also switch to project what’s actually happening on the stage (or what’s almost happening — there’s a lot of play at work in this play).  Actors glance occasionally at the monitors to time their gestures for easy-going near simultaneity, linking tech and real, cute, but it’s not over-done.   It’s tantalizing and profound.

The cast is superb as actors, dancers and singers, and skillful at switching from Irish to English when they switch character from Trojan to Greek.  The choreography is varied and luscious in being unhurried.   The costumes and set are part of a single vision: appealing, complex, tacky.  The Indian dress worn by Kate Valk, The Wooster Group’s great actress, has layers and asymmetries that, like the set itself, suggests the long history of transformations of Homer’s story.

The deconstructive battering ram The Wooster Group has brought to other iconic works was less to the point for Troilus & Cressida because Shakespeare was fundamentally already there. Instead they build on the morally dour, unidealized and fragmented view Shakespeare wrote in Troilus and Cressida and underline through tech, and time and place dislocations its inherent generalizations, giving us basically what’s in the play, although it’s sometimes difficult to catch every word because of much going on at once.

Cry, Trojans is more narratively continuous than other Wooster Group productions, less staccato and less eccentrically acted.  In a word, it’s theatrically less radical, and easier to take (at moments of the first half, I wondered “is this easy listening Wooster Group?”).  But the second half jells powerfully.   Gentlest with its roughest play, The Wooster Group remains mind-bending.

Cry, Trojans plays at The Performing Garage in Manhattan’s Tribeca through February 2, 2014.  EXTENDED THROUGH FEBRUARY 15, 2014.   *Note: Cry Trojans will be at St Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, NY, March 24 – April 19, 2015.  For  information, click here: Cry,Trojans St Ann’s

P.S.  For another take on Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, click for Classic Stage’s Age of Iron. 

Review | Early Plays, Based on Eugene O’Neill’s Glencairn Plays | Adapted and Directed by Richard Maxwell | Wooster Group / New York City Players

The three early one-act plays by O’Neill are moving and naturalistic, not melodramatic as I’ve seen them called elsewhere.  In order to find this out, though, one has to look through this production’s useless, arbitrary stylization which has the characters speaking with emotional emphasis but deadpan rhythms.  Still, if one sticks it out, one gets a good sense of the atmosphere and feeling of being part of a crew for a merchant ship in the early 20th Century. In the first play, Moon of the Caribees, we’re on shipboard (The Glencairn) anchored off an island in the West Indies. The men are lonely, filling their time with jokes and complaints, but two native girls come aboard with rum hidden in their big sacks and for a brief time sensuality, joy as well as disappointment and anger erupt in a drunken party.  In spite of the stilted delivery of the lines, I saw it all — the ship, rendered with a few telling scenic strokes, the repetitiveness of life aboard, the explosive excitement, and, always, the looming, oppressive authority of shipboard rank.

It’s a long night in Bound East for Cardiff, as a crewman whose vitality we came to know in Moon of the Carribees lies dying from an accidental shipboard injury. His mates are giving him what physical and emotional comfort they can as fog circles the ship, the heavy fog a poetic visualization of the state of dying. We not only saw the all-encompassing fog but in a most satisfying way felt and heard the creaking of the boards of the ship.

We’re in a dockside bar in The Long Voyage Home as a young sailor, an innocent among thieves, heading home with his pack of pay from one long voyage is robbed and, the worst of it, shanghaied onto another.

Creative disjunctions have been, in the past, the very essence of The Wooster Group’s vision.  The Group holds to a play’s narrative — as in last year’s production, Vieux Carre — while simultaneously undercutting it:  there are abrupt breaks and shifts, wacky, anachronistic furniture that skuttles around, tv monitors that may, or may not, be in synch with what’s currently on stage — a myriad of tech devices that violate sentimentality, illusion, and that old gold standard of narrative effectiveness, “suspended disbelief.”

And these stylizations have a point.  The tension between our cozy expectations of narrative and the Wooster Group’s willful violations of it keeps us on edge. This Group joins ranks with artists for whom “illusion” of truth or anything else is still illusion — i.e., false.  And falsity is not worth an artist’s time.  To see, here, in a Wooster Group production a meaningless speech stylization standing in for their usually inventive range of disconnects is disappointing.  The collaboration with Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players hasn’t done them any good.

Yet, although one doesn’t necessarily look to O’Neil for a realistic view of a time and place, that’s what we got in these three fine short dramas.  And the plays give us glimpses of the O’Neil to come, in the mood poetry, the woman-threat, and intense dramatic scenes, values that — in spite of the idiosyncratic flat stylizations — come through.

Early Plays is at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn, through March 11.

Comparison Review | The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre | Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte vs Pearl Theatre’s Vieux Carre

… 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.

Review | La Didone | Music by Francisco Cavalli | Libretto by Giovan Francesco Busenello | Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte | Wooster Group

… 17th century opera meets Planet of the Vampires …

First of all I have to say that La Didone is a tremendous lot of fun.  It’s exciting and spectacular — many things are happening all the time though not too much to keep track of.  What a lot of smiles!  How refreshing!

Two stories are played on stage concurrently.  La Didone, a 17th century opera based on Virgil’s Aeneid is beautifully sung and performed.  It’s the real thing, in a sense, and if you love opera, here’s a good one, but if you’re one of those people who find opera long and hard to take don’t stay away on that account, the Wooster Group makes it immediate and — you could never use the word “stuffy” about anything they do.  The other is Terrore nello spazio after the 1965 film Planet of the Vampires, populated with Star Trek look-alike talk-alike cosmonauts in metallic jumpsuits, and complete with a spaceship that you’d swear lands and lifts off with plenty of G’s in the course of the play.  Live actors interact with video monitors showing the same, or different, or partly the same actions.  The sensory upload feels terrific.

Why put the opera and film stories together?  Both are about quests to discover new worlds that are interrupted by involuntary landings on unknown territories.  By the end, Aeneas and his crew and some of the cosmonauts escape but not without great loss:  they leave behind their souls.  The cosmonauts literally leave their souls behind since aliens take over their bodies, dislodging their souls.  For Aeneas, loss of soul is a metaphorical expression of his parting forever from his beloved Dido whom he abandons … or is that more literal?  The parallel story lines raise lots of interesting questions.   The two stories bump into one another now and then but for the main they’re separate.

What does all this staccato excitement add up to?  The language of La Didone is poetic and given the long line by operatic singing.  Gestures are slow and grand.  Not so in Terrore nello spazio where Cosmonaut Deadpan is spoken:  “Check the meteor rejector!”  “What the — ?”  Gestures are clipped and muscular — you know it because you’ve seen it.  Titles projected above keep things straight and highlight the wild contrasts of style, a wonderful counterpoint.  In La Didone people are willing to throw away kingdoms for love and die for it, fully sung.  It’s the emotion of fear that drives the cosmonauts crazy — in few words.  The stories are from different epochs and told in entirely different modes but — here comes a favorite Wooster Group message — one’s as conventional as the other.  They’re just different conventions.

The Wooster Group follows a totally original path.  Often they’ve dismantled expressive conventions, this time they play off one against another.  To my mind, this is the best work they’ve ever done — a culmination!

The Wooster Group La Didone plays at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn, through April 26.  A video opens the site.

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