The Wooster Group
at the Museum of Contemporary Art, November 12-16
By Justin Hayford
It's easy to dismiss the Wooster Group's House/Lights as indulgent art-world posturing. Seven actors careen through 90 disjointed, aloof minutes never betraying an emotion and rarely finishing a thought--when they bother to speak at all. Instead they fling set pieces back and forth, dance drunkenly, pant, whisper, recite bits of a Gertrude Stein text, or imitate video images. Director Elizabeth LeCompte--as though bent on creating the coolest of McLuhan's cool media--combines video wizardry, an eclectic soundscape heavy on symphonic strains and computer noises, a tangle of microphones that distort performers' voices, and a slick industrial set that resembles a cross between Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory and the machines at Bally Total Fitness.
It's also tempting to indulge in reverse snobbery, as one of New York's most influential, high-profile experimental companies packs houses in a city of underfunded, underattended fringe performance. Moreover, the Wooster Group in House/Lights has adapted Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights--the same text uber-fringy Doorika grappled with last year in its Chicago swan song, Bathe Me, Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights. Like the Wooster Group, Doorika forsook all semblance of narrative and employed a bevy of video and audio tricks. But they created an arresting theatrical explosion on a shoestring while the Wooster Group has an annual budget of $750,000 and stars like Willem Dafoe and Spalding Gray--how risky can their work be? Hell, Prada provided the men's suits in this show gratis. Perhaps the New York avant-garde has cashed in its chips.
Whatever Wooster Group stock is worth these days, their work remains daring, their theatrical vision uncompromised. House/Lights may leave the viewer more baffled than enlightened, but comprehension isn't necessarily the point. Instead the intricate orchestration of disparate elements puts the piece at times on par with a great symphony. While not without its flaws, House/Lights provides the kind of aesthetic jolt only the true avant-garde can.
Two texts form the core of the piece: Stein's 1938 play Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, in which Faust sells his soul in exchange for electric light, and Joseph Mawra's 1964 underworld lesbian schlock thriller Olga's House of Shame. The film's blunt editing and obtrusive camera movements provide a kind of superficial structure for the piece, which includes self-consciously jarring edits. Press materials claim that "House/Lights utilizes bold cinematic templates such as camera moves and jumpcuts for its staging," but in fact the filmic patterning is the least interesting aspect of the show. After all, just about every humdrum playwright in America, from Keith Reddin to Neil Simon, has been imitating film onstage for years, assembling punchy five-minute scenes that jump from location to location.
LeCompte employs Olga's House of Shame a bit more successfully when she runs sections of the film on video screens around the stage. These scenes show women being chased through a forest, women being trained like horses, or women seductively belly dancing for one another. Whenever a bit of film plays, the women onstage imitate whatever's happening on-screen, typically with rather remote expressions. Dressed in high heels and tight dresses with grotesquely padded derrieres, they become icons of stylized helplessness. However quirky and charming these sections are at first, by the second half of the show they veer dangerously close to sheer condescension; call it "appropriation" if you want, but at base House/Lights makes fun of Mawra's film, dallying with its obvious misogyny and homophobia in a manner too glib to offer any real insights.
Whenever Mawra's film is out of the picture House/Lights displays its brilliance. Then LeCompte's genius for composition turns the stage into a living organism; bare bulbs flicker and dance while a bank of fluorescents blasts to life, two massive teeter-totters get slammed back and forth, and television monitors rise and sink at the rear of the stage. Through it all the performers dash with expert timing, executing their puzzling tasks with laserlike focus: moving artificial trees to and fro, lashing themselves by the ankles to TV sets, muttering into microphones. They never indicate any emotional investment in the proceedings, yet they're never less than fascinating--even when doing next to nothing, as during a curious "ballet" of insignificant gestures and occasional groans. With such engrossing inner lives, these actors create dramatic arcs out of thin air.
Kate Valk's handling of Stein's text is particularly mesmerizing: she winds her way through Stein's maze of repetitions and contradictions with unwavering precision--and without an ounce of psychological investment. In fact, Valk admitted after the show that she's fed the text through an earphone, freeing her to disregard what it might "mean." Clearly LeCompte, like Doorika's director Erika Yeomans, understands that to psychologize Stein's wordplay is to obliterate it. Instead it comes to us, like everything else in the show, in a carefully modulated flood. The deep structure of Stein's work, the patterns that emerge after multiple iterations, gives the text its force. It's this apsychological structure, not the imitation of cinematic conventions, upon which House/Lights is built.
Ultimately House/Lights seems to have no concerns beyond its own aesthetic rigor; watching it is like watching life encrypt itself irretrievably. Its creators offered no help with decoding. Asked after the show why they picked Mawra's film, LeCompte said, "We liked girl gangs." A cast member explained that they added Stein's text because "we needed a piece of literature to add some weight." One gets the sense that the selections were based on whim, that any film could have been combined with any text to create a show (and the surrealists, for one, would agree). Absent is any expressed interest in the historical, cultural, or political ramifications of their work. It's easy to leave the piece feeling toyed with, wondering whether the Wooster Group has anything to say.
But then, what does a violin concerto have to say? What are the historical, cultural, and political ramifications of a Chopin etude? House/Lights has no more content than a great piece of music; for all its apparent dissonance, it follows a line as simple as a sonata's. And while we're satisfied when Mozart limits himself to his own aesthetic rules, we often find such insularity alienating in the theater. Perhaps as a culture we haven't yet learned to read a work like House/Lights. After all, the Wooster Group, like all great avant-garde companies, asks us to rethink theater from the ground up, to grapple with our preconceived expectations of the form, and, most important, to enjoy the inexplicable.
In my November 7 review of Beatnik Theatre's The Talent Pool, I confused the names of two characters. It's actually Kat McDonnell as the agent Sandy who's "a marvel of incongruities." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Mary Gearhart.