Since 1975 the Wooster Group has been staging events that almost defy description and expectation. The group’s shows are freewheeling mixes of intellectual vaudeville and art spectacle that usually take classic texts (The Three Sisters, The Crucible) and run with them in bizarre and laconic directions. TV-watching America knows only of Wooster alumni who have worked in movies — actors like Willem Dafoe, Spalding Gray and Ron Vawter — but theater audiences around the world appreciate the company as this country‘s premier avant-garde troupe.
The New Yorkers operate out of the Performing Garage, an industrial edifice used in the 1960s by members of the Fluxus art movement. Although today Wooster Street bristles with such high-end boutiques as Bottega Veneta and Chanel, the red-brick pocket of Soho the group calls home remains a gaunt few blocks of lofts and utilitarian buildings. Co-founder Elizabeth LeCompte is a middle-aged woman with sandy hair and a deceptively quiet voice; she still rules the Wooster roost, and directs its latest effort, To You the Birdie! This is translator Paul Schmidt’s re-envisioning of Racine‘s Phedre, in which the Greek queen is overwhelmed by sexual desire for her son, thanks to a mischievous trick played on her by Aphrodite.
In Schmidt’s version, Phedre is a humiliated, incontinent wreck surrounded by virile and vain men who play badminton while she struggles with her bowels. LeCompte relies upon her signature use of video images and voice dubbing, along with loud sound effects, to present a disjointed mural of court life. Since most people today don‘t know the difference between Phedre and ephedrine, what led LeCompte to commission Schmidt to tackle this Restoration tragedy?
”I’ve never read Euripides or the Racine,“ she told the Weekly. ”Paul wrote this for us in the early ‘90s, but at the time we put it in the drawer. Sometime in the late 1990s, he became very sick and I decided to do it. He died before we finished it. The play is about illness of the body and soul. I guess Paul wanted to project a feeling of shame and humiliation.“
The script was so much a personification of Schmidt that, LeCompte said, one of her most difficult tasks ever as a director was finding the voice of Phedre: ”I was thinking of Paul all the time. This is a Catholic piece — Paul was Catholic — and finding that male Catholic voice didn’t come immediately.“
It eventually fell to actress Kate Valk to channel Schmidt through Phedre, and she, Dafoe and others will bring Birdie to UCLA for the next two weeks. The production has received loud praise from audiences and the press in New York and Europe, although a few British critics were put off by the show‘s rampant use of technology.
While it’s an iron law of theater that audiences should only focus on one character speaking onstage at a time, Wooster shows bombard their viewers with a babel of dialogue and sound — not unlike the confusion of actual life, although LeCompte‘s personal aesthetic (she has a painter’s training) has nothing to do with re-creating the mundane.
”It may be like looking at a modern painting after you‘ve been used to representational art for a long time,“ she said. ”It may seem like hell if you’re not used to it — I‘m not looking for chaos, I’m looking for incredible clarity.“
Los Angeles is the last leg of the Wooster Group‘s Birdie tour, but they are always busy.
”It takes about a year to get a new show ready,“ LeCompte said, ”but we do a lot of leapfrogging with five or six pieces that are in repertory, so sometimes we’re preparing a piece we did four years ago to go out on tour at the same time we‘re working on a new piece. We’re here in the morning every day, and we work into the night — six days a week, eight to 10 hours a day.“
The Performing Garage is filled with the props and costumes of the Wooster Group‘s past shows — all of which are packed and ready to hit the road when the need arises. The company’s technological dazzle, however, makes it expensive for performance venues to bring the Woosters in. The irony is that, since the group owns the Performing Garage, it can afford to charge relatively low admissions, between $15 and $25.
LeCompte said, ”We insist on a small house, no more than 300 people, because beyond that it becomes a mere spectacle. I always have the audience in mind because that‘s the art form. It’s not theater without an audience.“
In its infancy the Wooster Group was pounded by New York‘s critics, although today it has grayed into a revered middle age, hailed by both the local and national arts press. ”Now we’re hunting for bad reviews so we can get motivated again,“ LeCompte said with a very faint chuckle.
To You the Birdie! is being performed at UCLA‘s Freud Playhouse, as part of UCLA’s international theater festival, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., through November 17. Call (310) 825-2101.